The Astronomer Caroline Herschel

indexWe have a couple of times wandered down through the countryside from Bristol to Bath, and so we found the Herschel Museum, tucked down a little street. I had heard of Sir William Herschel vaguely, but was happier to find out about the life of his sister, Caroline. And I bought this book.

Put together by her niece Mary Herschel in 1878, it is lovely but I definitely feel it is time for a new appraisal. Caroline’s own memoirs which she wrote are here cut up, put into context, probably somewhat expunged — though it is had to tell through the veil of both women’s intense sense of propriety. The letters are brilliant though, and give a wonderful sense of Caroline as well as how much she was loved and admired by others, particularly her nephew Sir John Herschel, who followed in the footsteps of her brother William.

Caroline lived for an extraordinarily long time, 1750-1848. She was in a position to do astronomical observations for only a portion of this time, but she found seven comets, did loads of work, was first woman to receive a medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828, and actually made an honorary member of the Society with Mary Somerville in 1835.

Along with her own accomplishments, the book offers a fascinating window on the lives and limitations placed upon women in this period. She had typhus at a young age, so only grew to 4’3″. This explains the assumption that she would never marry, and that her role would be to always and forever take care of other people’s families. She was deeply imprinted by her mothers’ ideas of what would best fit her for this life fated for her:

My father wished to give me something like a polished education, but my mother was particularly determined that it should be a rough, but at the same time a useful one… I could not help thinking but that she had cause of wishing me not to know more than was necessary for being useful in the family; for it was her certain belief that my brother William would have returned to his country, and my eldest brother not have looked so high, if they had had a little less learning. (20)

This was not in fact her fate, but always there is the sense that she is still, to some extent, living within its boundaries. She left Hanover in 1772, William persuading her mother to let her go and become his assistant in Bath. In 1782 he was appointed the King’s Astronomer (for a large cut in pay, and a lot of showing royals the stars), moved to Slough. She went with him.

While she rarely complains or talks about herself at all, she does at one point write

In short, I have been throughout annoyed and hindered in my endeavours at perfecting myself in any branch of knowledge by which I could hope to gain a creditable livelihood. (31)

She tried to educate herself. But is always forced to remain conscious of her own lack of education, and her complete dependence upon others. It is a terrible thing, like a straightjacket which she must live within. This despite her wonderful singing voice and musical abilities, as well as her intelligence and determination.

Alexander was obliged to return to Bath…till now I had not had time to consider the consequence of giving up the prospect of making myself independent by becoming (with a little more uninterrupted application) a useful member of the musical profession. But besides that my brother William would have been very much at a loss for my assistance, I had not spirit enough to throw myself on the public after losing his protection. (51)

Still, she throws herself into the business of astronomy to help her brother — an uncomfortable business with long cold nights and a house more like a workshop and a lot of accidents. It is unclear from her memoirs whether this is indeed the intellectual endeavor she would have chosen to dedicate her life to if she were free to make her own choice, but once embarked upon it, she did not look back. A life of some adventure, really, though much tedium and hard work:

As soon as the season for the concerts was over, and the mould &c., in readiness, a day was set apart for casting, and the metal was in the furnace, but unfortunately it began to leak at the moment when ready for pouring, and both my brothers and the caster with his men were obliged to run out at opposite doors, for the stone flooring (which out to have been taken up) flew about in all directions, as high as the ceiling. (44)

I seem to have lost my photos from the museum, all but one. It is quite wonderful though consisting of only a handful of rooms. You can still see these cracked floor stones:

IMG_2869One thing that struck me from her words was the demanding nature, and lack of generosity of the King. I read the memoirs of Fanny Burney long ago, and remember similar surprise at the monotony, and often the level of penury, suffered by many at court who existed to wait upon royalty’s pleasure. Caroline describes in at least one letter an enjoyable evening spent in by then Madame d’Arbley’s company, and that made me happy. However, after numerous people put pressure on him, King I-forgot-which-one-it-was slowly increased the money allowed to William for building telescopes (marvelous, enormous telescopes) and in 1787, finally recognised the work of Caroline:

A salary of fifty pounds a year was also settled on me as an assistant to my brother, and in October I received twelve pounds ten, being the first quarterly payment of my salary, and the first money I ever in all my lifetime thought myself to be at liberty to spend to my own liking. A great uneasiness was by this means removed from my mind…Nothing but bankruptcy had ll the while been running through my silly head (75-76)

She is a funny mix of devotion to her brother, deprecation of her own abilities, and acknowledgement of women’s uncertain position in the world. She writes many years later on receiving the medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, in a letter to her nephew dated August 21, 1828:

What you tell me in the short note dated May 24th…has completely put me out of humour with the same; for to say the truth, I felt from the first more shocked than gratified by that singular distinction, for I know well how dangerous it is for women to draw to much notice on themselves. (231)

I think that last sentence explained an immense amount of her letters and the choices made in her memoir to me.

That last sentence embodies everything that women have been fighting for centuries. When her brother marries and promptly turfs her out of their home, it only highlights the injustice of a society unable to value women except as mothers or wives…she overcomes it all.

She is both observant and intelligent and wise, however much some of her deprecation grates from time to time on my modern ears. Understandings like this shine clear, in her response to the publishing of her index to Flamsteed’s Observations (written from Slough, Sept 1798):

But your having thought it worthy of the press has flattered my vanity not a little. You see, sir, I do own myself to be vain, because I would not wish to be singular; and was there ever a woman without vanity? Or a man either? Only with this difference, that among gentlemen the commodity is generally styled ambition. (96)

There are glints of humour, like this one, in the form of advice to her Nephew John, 25 October 1831:

But do not observe too much in cold weather. Write rather books to make folks stare at your profound knowledge…. (249)

So much of her memories and her letters has to do with being ill, long bouts of sickness, I am sure exacerbated by working through the nights in cold and damp. She moved back to Hanover after her brother’s death, only to be deeply disillusioned by the lack of intellectual society and the terrible mistreatment by her own family. She was no longer able to search for stars, only work on her indexes. Yet she was stuck, and forced to make the best of it.

I loved that this included some of the letters written to her, for they show most beautifully the esteem in which she is held, and her intelligence and humour and the expectation she will share in scientific excitement and seeking of knowledge. There are passages like this one:

I found my aunt wonderfully well and very nicely and comfortably lodged, and we have since been on the full trot. She runs about the town with me and skips up her two flights of stairs as light and fresh at least as some folks I could name who are not a fourth part of her age …. In the morning till eleven or twelve she is dull and weary, but as the day advances she gains life, and is quite “fresh and funny” at ten or eleven, p.m., and sings old rhymes, nay, even dances! To the great delight of all who see her ….

There are a few other interesting passages, like this one from Dr Maskelyne writing to Miss Caroline Herschel , verifying her discovery of a comet, 27 December 1788:

Let us hope the best, and that it is approaching the earth to please and instruct us, and not to destroy us, for true astronomers have no fears of that kind. (81)

This from Caroline writing to her nephew John, 1822

I wish you would let me know if any of the works of Schelling are known in England? Of him it is said that his philosophy is entirely new, and beyond all what goes before, and so profound, that nobody here can understand him, &c.

Philosophy hasn’t much changed I don’t think.

On April 23, 1835 alluding to some misdeeds of Newtons…what news emerged then, I wonder to cast him into disrepute? News we have since forgotten? After relating her happiness at becoming a member of the Royal Astronomical Society ‘our Society, of which I am now a fellow!’, she goes on to write:

I lament very much, in common with every friend of science, that Newton’s name is mixed up with transactions that show him in a diffeent light from that in which we have generally received his character. (277)

All in all this is a fascinating little book, but I would love to see Caroline Herschel become better known and better studied.


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