Victorian Celebrity: Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s Daughter, English Mathematician, and First Computer Programmer

250px-Ada_Lovelace_portrait Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852), born Augusta Ada Byron and now commonly known as Ada Lovelace, was an English mathematician and writer chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes on the engine include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. Because of this, she is often described as the world’s first computer programmer.

Lovelace was born 10 December 1815 as the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Byron. All Byron’s other children were born out of wedlock. Byron separated from his wife a month after Ada was born and left England forever four months later, eventually dying of disease in the Greek War of Independence when Ada was eight years old. Ada’s mother remained bitter at Lord Byron and promoted Ada’s interest in mathematics and logic in an effort to prevent her from developing what she saw as the insanity seen in her father, but Ada remained interested in him despite this (and was, upon her eventual death, buried next to him at her request).

Ada described her approach as “poetical science” and herself as an “Analyst (& Metaphysician).” As a young adult, her mathematical talents led her to an ongoing working relationship and friendship with fellow British mathematician Charles Babbage, and in particular Babbage’s work on the Analytical Engine.

Between 1842 and 1843, she translated an article by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea on the engine, which she supplemented with an elaborate set of notes of her own, simply called Notes. These notes contain what many consider to be the first computer program—that is, an algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine. Lovelace’s notes are important in the early history of computers.

She also developed a vision on the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on those capabilities. Ada’s mind-set of “poetical science” led her to ask basic questions about the Analytical Engine (as shown in her notes) examining how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool.


Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron on 10 December 1815, the child of the poet George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, and Anne Isabella “Annabella” Milbanke, Baroness Byron. George Byron expected his baby to be “the glorious boy” and was disappointed that his wife gave birth to a girl. Augusta was named after Byron’s half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and was called “Ada” by Byron himself.

On 16 January 1816, Annabella, at George’s behest, left for her parents’ home at Kirkby Mallory taking one-month-old Ada with her. Although English law gave fathers full custody of their children in cases of separation, Byron made no attempt to claim his parental rights but did request that his sister keep him informed of Ada’s welfare. On 21 April, Byron signed the Deed of Separation, although very reluctantly, and left England for good a few days later.

Aside from an acrimonious separation, Annabella continually throughout her life made allegations about Byron’s immoral behavior. This set of events made Ada famous in Victorian society. Byron did not have a relationship with his daughter and never saw her again. He died in 1824 when she was eight years old.

Her mother was the only significant parental figure in her life. Ada was not allowed to view any portrait of her father until her twentieth birthday. Her mother became Baroness Wentworth in her own right in 1856.

Annabella did not have a close relationship with the young Ada and often left her in the care of her own mother Judith, Hon. Lady Milbanke, who doted on her grandchild. However, due to societal attitudes of the time, which favored the husband in any separation, with the welfare of any child acting as mitigation, Annabella had to present herself as a loving mother to the rest of society.

This included writing anxious letters to Lady Milbanke about Ada’s welfare, with a cover note saying to retain the letters in case she had to use them to show maternal concern. In one letter to Lady Milbanke, she referred to Ada as “it”: “I talk to it for your satisfaction, not my own, and shall be very glad when you have it under your own.” In her teenaged years, several of her mother’s close friends watched Ada for any sign of moral deviation. Ada dubbed these observers the Furies, and later complained they exaggerated and invented stories about her.

Ada was often ill, beginning in early childhood. At the age of eight, she experienced headaches that obscured her vision. In June 1829, she was paralyzed after a bout of measles. She was subjected to continuous bed rest for nearly a year, which may have extended her period of disability. By 1831, she was able to walk with crutches.

Despite being ill Ada developed her mathematical and technological skills. When Ada was twelve years old, this future “Lady Fairy,” as Charles Babbage affectionately called her, decided that she wanted to fly. Ada went about the project methodically, thoughtfully, with imagination and passion. Her first step in February 1828, was to construct wings. She investigated different material and sizes. She considered various materials for the wings; paper, oilsilk, wires and feathers. She examined the anatomy of birds to determine the right proportion between the wings and the body. She decided to write a book Flyology illustrating, with plates, some of her findings. She decided what equipment she would need, for example, a compass, to “cut across the country by the most direct road,” so that she could surmount mountains, rivers and valleys. Her final step was to integrate steam with the “art of flying.”

In early 1833, Ada had an affair with a tutor and, after being caught, tried to elope with him. The tutor’s relatives recognized her and contacted her mother. Annabella and her friends covered the incident up to prevent a public scandal.

Ada never met her younger half-sister, Allegra Byron, daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont, who died in 1822 at the age of five. She did, however, have some contact with Elizabeth Medora Leigh, the daughter of Byron’s half-sister Augusta Leigh. Augusta Leigh purposely avoided Ada as much as possible when she was introduced at Court.

Adult Years
Lovelace developed a strong relationship with her tutor Mary Somerville. She had a strong respect and affection for Somerville, and the two of them corresponded for many years. Other acquaintances included Andrew Crosse, Sir David Brewster, Charles Wheatstone, Charles Dickens and Michael Faraday.

By 1834, Ada was a regular at Court and started attending various events. She danced often and was able to charm many people and was described by most people as being dainty. However, John Hobhouse, Lord Byron’s friend, was the exception and he described her as “…a large, coarse-skinned young woman but with something of my friend’s features, particularly the mouth.” This description followed their meeting on 24 February 1834 in which Ada made it clear to Hobhouse she did not like him, probably due to the influence of her mother, which led her to dislike all of her father’s friends. This first impression was not to last, and they later became friends.

On 8 July 1835 she married William King, 8th Baron King, becoming Baroness King. Their residence was a large estate at Ockham Park, in Ockham, Surrey, along with another estate on Loch Torridon and a home in London. They spent their honeymoon at Worthy Manor in Ashley Combe near Porlock Weir, Somerset. The Manor had been built as a hunting lodge in 1799 and was improved by King in preparation for their honeymoon. It later became their summer retreat and was further improved during this time. The house was built on a small plateau in woodland overlooking the Bristol Channel and surrounded by terraced gardens in the Italianate style.

They had three children: Byron born 12 May 1836, Anne Isabella (called Annabella, later Lady Anne Blunt) born 22 September 1837 and Ralph Gordon born 2 July 1839. Immediately after the birth of Annabella, Lady King experienced “…a tedious and suffering illness, which took months to cure.”

In 1838, her husband became Earl of Lovelace. Thus, she was styled “The Right Honourable the Countess of Lovelace” for most of her married life. In 1843-4, her mother, Anabella, assigned William Benjamin Carpenter to teach Ada’s children and to act as a ‘moral’ instructor for Ada. He quickly fell for her and encouraged her to express any frustrated affections, claiming his marriage meant he’d never act in an “unbecoming” manner. When it became clear Carpenter was trying to start an affair, Ada cut it off.

In 1841, Lovelace and Medora Leigh (daughter of Lord Byron’s half-sister Augusta Leigh) were told by Ada’s mother that her father was also Medora’s father. On 27 February 1841, Ada wrote to her mother: “I am not in the least astonished. In fact you merely confirm what I have for years and years felt scarcely a doubt about, but should have considered it most improper in me to hint to you that I in any way suspected.” Ada did not blame the incestuous relationship on Byron, but instead blamed Augusta Leigh: “I fear she is more inherently wicked than he ever was.” This did not prevent Ada’s mother from attempting to destroy her daughter’s image of her father, but instead drove her to attack Byron’s image with greater intensity.

In the 1840s, Ada flirted with scandals: firstly from a relaxed relationship with men who were not her husband, which led to rumours of affairs—and secondly, her love of gambling. The gambling led to her forming a syndicate with male friends, and an ambitious attempt in 1851 to create a mathematical model for successful large bets. This went disastrously wrong, leaving her thousands of pounds in debt and being blackmailed by one of the syndicate, forcing her to admit the mess to her husband. Ada also had a shadowy, possibly illicit relationship with Andrew Crosse’s son John from 1844 onwards. Few hard facts are known about this because Crosse destroyed most of their correspondence after her death as part of a legal agreement. However, the relationship was strong enough that she bequeathed him the only heirlooms her father had personally left to her. During her final illness, Ada would panic at the idea of John Crosse being kept from visiting her.

Ada Lovelace died at the age of thirty-six, on 27 November 1852, from uterine cancer probably exacerbated by bloodletting by her physicians. The illness lasted several months, in which time Annabella took command over whom Ada saw and excluded all of her friends and confidants. Under her mother’s influence, she had a religious transformation (after previously being a materialist) and was coaxed into repenting of her previous conduct and making Annabella her executor. She lost contact with her husband after she confessed something to him on 30 August that caused him to abandon her bedside. What she told him is unknown but may have been a confession of adultery.

She was buried, at her request, beside her father at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham.

Throughout her illnesses, she continued her education. Her mother’s obsession with rooting out any of the insanity of which she accused Lord Byron was one of the reasons Ada was taught mathematics from an early age. She was privately schooled in mathematics and science by William Frend, William King, and Mary Somerville, noted researcher and scientific author of the 19th century. One of her later tutors was the noted mathematician and logician Augustus De Morgan.

From 1832, when she was seventeen, her remarkable mathematical abilities began to emerge, and her interest in mathematics dominated the majority of her adult life. In a letter to Lady Byron, De Morgan suggested that her daughter’s skill in mathematics could lead her to become “an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence.”

Lovelace often questioned basic assumptions by integrating poetry and science. While studying differential calculus, she wrote to De Morgan: “I may remark that the curious transformations many formulae can undergo, the unsuspected and to a beginner apparently impossible identity of forms exceedingly dissimilar at first sight, is I think one of the chief difficulties in the early part of mathematical studies. I am often reminded of certain sprites and fairies one reads of, who are at one’s elbows in one shape now, and the next minute in a form most dissimilar….” Lovelace believed intuition and imagination were critical to effectively applying mathematical and scientific concepts. She valued metaphysics as much as mathematics, viewing both as tools for exploring “the unseen worlds around us.”

Throughout her life, Ada was strongly interested in scientific developments and fads of the day, including phrenology and mesmerism. Even after her famous work with Babbage, Ada continued to work on other projects. In 1844, she commented to a friend Woronzow Greig about her desire to create a mathematical model for how the brain gives rise to thoughts and nerves to feelings (“a calculus of the nervous system”).

She never achieved this, however. In part, her interest in the brain came from a long-running preoccupation, inherited from her mother, about her ‘potential’ madness. As part of her research into this project, she visited electrical engineer Andrew Crosse in 1844 to learn how to carry out electrical experiments. In the same year, she wrote a review of a paper by Baron Karl von Reichenbach, Researches on Magnetism, but this was not published and does not appear to have progressed past the first draft. In 1851, the year before her cancer struck, she wrote to her mother mentioning “certain productions” she was working on regarding the relation of maths and music.

Lovelace first met Charles Babbage in June 1833, through their mutual friend Mary Somerville. Later that month, Babbage invited Lovelace to see the prototype for his Difference Engine. Lovelace became fascinated with the machine and used her relationship with Somerville to visit Babbage as often as she could.

Babbage was impressed by Lovelace’s intellect and analytic skills. He called her The Enchantress of Numbers. In 1843 he wrote of her:
Forget this world and all its troubles and if
possible its multitudinous Charlatans—every thing
in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.

During a nine-month period in 1842–43, Ada translated Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on Babbage’s newest proposed machine, the Analytical Engine. With the article, she appended a set of notes. Explaining the Analytical Engine’s function was a difficult task, as even other scientists did not really grasp the concept and the British establishment was uninterested in it. Ada’s notes even had to explain how the Engine differed from the original Difference Engine. The notes are longer than the memoir itself and include (in Section G), in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers with the Engine, which would have run correctly had the Analytical Engine been built (only his Difference Engine has been built, completed in London in 2002). Based on this work, Ada is now widely credited with being the first computer programmer, and her method is recognised as the world’s first computer program. Her work was well received at the time: Michael Faraday described himself as a fan of her writing.

Lovelace and Babbage had a minor falling out when the papers were published, when he tried to leave his own statement (a criticism of the government’s treatment of his Engine) as an unsigned preface—which would imply that she had written that also. When “Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs” ruled that the statement should be signed, Babbage wrote to Ada asking her to withdraw the paper. This was the first that she knew he was leaving it unsigned, and she wrote back refusing to withdraw the paper. Historian Benjamin Woolley theorised that, “His actions suggested he had so enthusiastically sought Ada’s involvement, and so happily indulged her… because of her ‘celebrated name’.”

Their friendship recovered, and they continued to correspond. On 12 August 1851, when she was dying of cancer, Ada wrote to him asking him to be her executor, though this letter did not give him the necessary legal authority. Part of the terrace at Worthy Manor was known as Philosopher’s Walk, as it was there that Ada and Babbage were reputed to have walked while discussing mathematical principles.

First Computer Program</strong
Luigi Menabrea, a young Italian engineer, and future Prime Minister of Italy, wrote up Babbage's lecture in French, and this transcript was subsequently published in the Bibliothèque universelle de Genève in October 1842.

Babbage’s friend Charles Wheatstone commissioned Ada to translate Menabrea’s paper into English. She then augmented the paper with notes, which were added to the translation. Ada spent the better part of a year doing this, assisted with input from Babbage. These notes, which are more extensive than Menabrea’s paper, were then published in Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs under the initialism AAL.

In 1953, over one hundred years after her death, Ada’s notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine were republished. The engine has now been recognized as an early model for a computer, and Ada’s notes as a description of a computer and software.

Lovelace’s notes were labelled alphabetically from A to G. In note G, she describes an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It is considered the first algorithm ever specifically tailored for implementation on a computer, and Ada is often cited as the first computer programmer for this reason. The engine was never completed, however, so her code was never tested.

Conceptual Leap
In her notes, Lovelace emphasized the difference between the Analytical Engine and previous calculating machines, particularly its ability to be programmed to solve problems of any complexity. Lovelace realised that the potential of the device extended far beyond mere number crunching. She wrote:
[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine…
Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.

This analysis was a conceptual leap from previous ideas about the capabilities of computing devices, and foreshadowed the capabilities and implications of the modern computer. This insight is seen as significant by writers such as Betty Toole and Benjamin Woolley, as well as programmer John Graham-Cumming, whose project Plan 28 has the aim of constructing the first complete Analytical Engine.

Controversy Over Extent of Contributions
Though Ada Lovelace is often referred to as the first computer programmer, there is disagreement over the extent of her contributions, and whether she can accurately be called a programmer. Allan G. Bromley, in the 1990 essay Difference and Analytical Engines, wrote, “All but one of the programs cited in her notes had been prepared by Babbage from three to seven years earlier. The exception was prepared by Babbage for her, although she did detect a ‘bug’ in it. Not only is there no evidence that Ada ever prepared a program for the Analytical Engine, but her correspondence with Babbage shows that she did not have the knowledge to do so.” On the other hand, Eugene Eric Kim and Betty Alexandra Toole wrote, “[Lovelace] was certainly capable of writing the program herself given the proper formula; this is clear from her depth of understanding regarding the process of programming and from her improvements on Babbage’s programming notation.”

Curator and author Doron Swade, in his 2001 book The Difference Engine, wrote, “The first algorithms or stepwise operations leading to a solution—what we now recognize as a ‘program,’ although the word was used neither by her nor by Babbage—were certainly published under her name. But the work had been completed by Babbage much earlier.” Kim and Toole dispute this claim: “Babbage had written several small programs for the Analytical Engine in his notebook in 1836 and 1837, but none of them approached the complexity of the Bernoulli numbers program.”

Historian Bruce Collier went further in his 1990 book The Little Engine That Could’ve, calling Ada not only irrelevant, but delusional:
It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Babbage wrote the ‘Notes’ to Menabrea’s paper, but for reasons of his own encouraged the illusion in the minds of Ada and the public that they were authored by her. It is no exaggeration to say that she was a manic depressive with the most amazing delusions about her own talents, and a rather shallow understanding of both Charles Babbage and the Analytical Engine.

Writer Benjamin Woolley said that while Ada’s mathematical abilities have been contested, she can claim “some contribution”: “Note A, the first she wrote, and the one over which Babbage had the least influence, contains a sophisticated analysis of the idea and implications of mechanical computation” and that this discussion of the implications of Babbage’s invention was the most important aspect of her work. According to Woolley, her notes were “…detailed and thorough [a]nd still… metaphysical, meaningfully so.” They explained how the machine worked and “…[rose] above the technical minutiae of Babbage’s extraordinary invention to reveal its true grandeur.”

Babbage published the following on Ada’s contribution, in his Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864):
I then suggested that she add some notes to Menabrea’s memoir, an idea which was immediately adopted. We discussed together the various illustrations that might be introduced; I suggested several but the selection was entirely her own. So also was the algebraic working out of the different problems, except, indeed, that relating to the numbers of Bernoulli, which I had offered to do to save Lady Lovelace the trouble. This she sent back to me for an amendment, having detected a grave mistake which I had made in the process.

Eugene Eric Kim and Betty Alexandar Toole elucidate Babbage’s role in writing the first computer program:
From this letter, two things are clear. First, including a program that computed Bernoulli numbers was Ada’s idea. Second, Babbage at the very least provided the formulas for calculating Bernoulli numbers… Letters between Babbage and Ada at the time seem to indicate that Babbage’s contributions were limited to the mathematical formula and that Ada created the program herself.

In Popular Culture
**Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) includes a nod to Ada Lovelace when referring to one of its main characters named Ada (“Ada was transformed into a sort of graceful computing machine, endowed, moreover, with phenomenal luck, and would greatly surpass baffled Van in acumen, foresight and exploitation of chance…”).
**Lovelace has been portrayed in Romulus Linney’s 1977 play Childe Byron, the 1990 steampunk novel The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, the 1997 film Conceiving Ada, and in John Crowley’s 2005 novel Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, where she is featured as an unseen character whose personality is forcefully depicted in her annotations and anti-heroic efforts to archive her father’s lost novel.
**In Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play Arcadia, the precocious teenage genius Thomasina Coverly (a character “apparently based” on Ada Lovelace—the play also involves Lord Byron) comes to understand chaos theory, and theorises the second law of thermodynamics, before either is officially recognised.

The computer language Ada, created on behalf of the United States Department of Defense, was named after Ada Lovelace. The reference manual for the language was approved on 10 December 1980, and the Department of Defense Military Standard for the language, MIL-STD-1815, was given the number of the year of her birth. Since 1998, the British Computer Society has awarded a medal in her name and in 2008 initiated an annual competition for women students of computer science. In the UK, the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium, the annual conference for women undergraduates is named after Ada Lovelace.

“Ada Lovelace Day” is an annual event celebrated in mid-October whose goal is to “…raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.”

The Ada Initiative is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the involvement of women in the free culture and open source movements.

On the 197th anniversary of her birth, Google dedicated its Google Doodle to her. The doodle shows Lovelace working on a formula along with images that show the evolution of the computer.

The Engineering in Computer Science and Telecommunications College building in Zaragoza University is called the Ada Byron Building. The village computer centre in the village of Porlock, near where Ada Lovelace lived, is named after her. There is a building in the small town of Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, named Ada Lovelace House. One of the tunnel boring machines excavating the tunnels for London’s Crossrail project is named Ada in commemoration of Ada Lovelace.220px-AdaLovelaceplaque

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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5 Responses to Victorian Celebrity: Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s Daughter, English Mathematician, and First Computer Programmer

  1. Janet Taylor says:

    This was extremely interesting, especially since I was a math teacher during my teaching career! She had a sad life in many ways. Too bad her mother’s ‘moral’ tutor turned out to be immoral himself! Her mother didn’t seem much better than her father but at least little Ada had a good grandmother.

    Thanks for sharing this information.

  2. Maudie says:

    Ada Lovelace is my second cousin, twice removed. Many of the assertions in this article are quite correct, according to family accounts, but the portrait of Annabelle is less accurate, and seems to support the more influential Byron account of their marriage. History is created by the more powerful speakers, usually the males, and Annabelle and Ada are often diminished in written accounts of the times, despite their being powerful intellectuals.

    • I thank you for your insights, Maudie. I appreciate your sharing it with us. As we women understand, for many years we possessed no voice. Needless to say, Byron’s voice (due to his popularity at the time and since) would outshine any Annabelle and Ada could provide.
      My favorite writer, Jane Austen, gives us this tidbit in “Persuasion”:

      “There is no hurry on my side. I am only ready whenever you are. I am in very good anchorage here” (smiling at Anne), “well supplied, and want for nothing. No hurry for a signal at all. Well, Miss Elliot” (lowering his voice), “as I was saying, we shall never agree, I suppose, upon this point. No man and woman would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you — all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps, you will say, these were all written by men.”

      “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

      “But how shall we prove anything?”

      “We never shall. We never can expect to prove anything upon such a point. It is a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof. We each begin, probably, with a little bias towards our own sex; and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle; many of which circumstances (perhaps those very cases which strike us the most) may be precisely such as cannot be brought forward without betraying a confidence, or, in some respect, saying what should not be said.”

      “Ah!” cried Captain Harville, in a tone of strong feeling, “if I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, ‘God knows whether we ever meet again!’ And then, if I could convey to you the glow of his soul when he does see them again; when, coming back after a twelvemonth’s absence, perhaps, and obliged to put into another port, he calculates how soon it be possible to get them there, pretending to deceive himself, and saying, ‘They cannot be here till such a day,’ but all the while hoping for them twelve hours sooner, and seeing them arrive at last, as if Heaven had given them wings, by many hours sooner still! If I could explain to you all this, and all that a man can bear and do, and glories to do, for the sake of these treasures of his existence! I speak, you know, only of such men as have hearts!” pressing his own with emotion.

      “Oh!” cried Anne eagerly, “I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures! I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman. No, I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as — if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone!”

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