This has been a great reading month! I have had a wonderful time learning more about women in science. And, I especially enjoyed reading about, astronomer, Caroline Herschel in the The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown. I am so glad Doing Dewey hosted this wonderful event during the month of March. I had a blast with the reading and plan to continue reading more about women in science.
The story follows Caroline Herschel’s life from her unhappy, hopeless childhood in Hanover to her life in England where she worked alongside her brother William as an invaluable assistant. She eventually became an astronomer in her own right, but before this she endured a difficult childhood and then devoted service to her brother.
She loved her brother, but she was also grateful to him. During the 18th century, women had no independence or freedom; a girl went from her father’s house to her husband’s house. For Caroline, there would be no husband and she knew it. As a young girl she contracted typhus, which left her face scarred and stunted her growth. William Herschel brought her to England to live with him; he educated her to work with and support him. This may sound selfish, but in a very real way, he gave her a life of her own; a life filled with wonder and discovery, joy and passion. Together, they studied the skies and made discoveries that proved to the world that the universe was much bigger than anyone realized. It was William who inspired her to look to the skies when she was a little girl and both of them would go on to make history in the world of astronomy.
Caroline and William worked together and their personal and professional lives were intertwined. William’s discoveries and contributions to astronomy are detailed in the book as part of Caroline’s story. I must say that he was very interesting! Among other things, he was the man who created the 20 and 40 foot telescopes of the 18th century in order to see further into the cosmos-and he succeeded: he discovered Uranus. But, Caroline was his rock of strength and support; she was the woman behind the man. She worked from sunrise to sunset with little sleep. During the day she kept house: she cooked, cleaned and entertained guests and at night, she was by his side at the telescope, often in the freezing cold, providing assistance and support. When she learned not to waste time sleeping she copied his notes, wrote letters, learned the necessary mathematical skills in order to help him with his work and as a woman, she kept house.
The writing is beautiful and the author draws me into Caroline’s world. I really got a sense of how much Caroline sacrificed to support her brother, but it was a labor of love. She was grateful to him for taking her away from her mother in Hanover; she also recognized his brilliance and wanted to be a part of history by supporting him. For me, one of the most memorable scenes in the book is when William expects her to pound and sift dung to make molds for the mirrors. She is shocked that he is asking her to do more and that. But she agrees because she wants to be a part “…in the great work of their life, even if it means sifting dung” (p 191).
Carrie Brown shows us how indispensable Caroline Herschel was to her brother and I thought a real turning point came when Caroline realized that it was “more engaging…to be the stargazer than to be the stargazer’s assistant” (p 199). This comes at a time when William is often away from home (he just discovered a planet and had the attention of the King of England). As a result, she becomes more and more independent. It is during this time that she makes her first discovery: a comet!
This is a wonderful work of historical fiction! The author makes a few departures from historical facts in the novel, but she explains the changes at the end of the book. Some changes, like Caroline’s love interest later in life, really added to the story. This book provides a glimpse of life during the 18th century and allows the reader to see the strong gender bias of that time. William and Caroline simply did not have the same choices and you really get a good sense of just how limited the options were for women: marriage or keeping house for a family member. Caroline lived by these rules, but found freedom within them. I was glad when Caroline left Hanover and I enjoyed reading about how she grew as an individual and achieved success and respect of her own.
How about you? What have you read during Women’s History Month?