Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Stargazer's Sister: A Novel, by Carrie Brown (author), Suzanne Toren (narrator)

Audible Studios, January 2016

This is a great fictional biography of the life of Caroline Herschel, younger sister of astronomer William Hersschel. For many years she was the unfavored younger daughter of the Herschel family, or more specifically unfavored by her her mother, or by her oldest brother, Jacob.

Her father Isaac and her second-oldest sibling, William, though, were very fond of her, and she acquired a pretty fair education along the way. When William was settled and established in England, having gone there originally in the military service of the Elector of Hanover, a.k.a. the King of England, eventually he needed help running his household, and she become desperate enough to ask him to save her from life with their mother.

And thus we embark on the fascinating story of the brilliant astronomer and his sister, who kept him fed, reminded him to sleep, and assisted him in his work. And who became a very good astronomer in her own right.

Even today, astronomy, the observation of the night sky and the tracking and recording of what can be seen in it, is still a field where educated, dedicated amateurs can and do make significant discoveries. In the lave 1700s and early 1800s, there was still far more scope for "amateurs" such as William Herschel was at the beginning of his career. What Herschel had over other astronomers, amateur and professional, was insight into the design of better telescopes, and the energy and dedication to follow throw and build them.

He also had his sister, Caroline.

Caroline helped make it possible for him to spend so much of his time working at his telescopes. She actively helped with the work of getting his greatest telescope, the forty-foot telescope he built at Observatory House in Slough, built. More importantly, she recorded his work, kept it organized, and was always available to track down whatever piece of information he needed.

And she made her own observations on the twenty-foot telescope, and recorded those observations, and discovered numerous comets. Over many years and a long life, she gained widespread recognition both for her contributions to William's work, and her own work.

But those are just the outward facts of her unexpected professional life. She was also a woman of fairly modest background and real but limited education, who became an accomplished woman of science in the late 18th and early 19th century, while her personal life was emotionally trying, often precarious, dependent on her brother for most of her adult life, and her security was very nearly snatched away from her grasp when William, in his fifties, finally married the wealthy widow, Mary Pitt.

Brown gives us a picture of a young girl who grows to be a strong, intelligent, determined adult, with real accomplishments of her own at a time when that was neither expected nor supported, and eventually found her own piece of personal happiness, as well. It's engrossing, challenging, and at last emotionally satisfying.

The basic outlines of Caroline's life and professional accomplishments are accurate. Much of the personal detail and relationships are of course necessarily the result of speculation and invention.

Highly recommended.

I received a free copy of this audiobook from Audible in exchange for an honest review.