This post is inspired by the German astronomer Caroline Herschel. A breathing gap in half term so this one is a little more timely than the others! Something about her story created a pompous voice in my head that narrated her experience, which felt more suitable than reimagining her thoughts. If you have any suggestions for people I could use to inspire my fiction please let me know in the comments!
Minding The Heavens
Just imagine, they said; someone of that stature looking at the sky. Her eyes don’t even work properly, they said; as if she could find anything for herself. It’s her brother, really, they said. Nothing but pity, they said. He had to take her in because what else can you do when your spinster sister is leaching off the family funds and not a man to take her? they said.
What to say to that? There are always those who will come to their own truths.
Take a girl. At the age of five take away her last remaining sister, lost to marriage rather than death, like the others. What to do with an idle pair of female hands? Turn them to the work they will have the most use for – cleaning, cooking, mending, making. All those labours that underpin every inch of the day, without which all those clever-minded men would be slopped in a corner, unfed and untended.
Give her smallpox to scar those cheeks against male attraction. Take that delicate frame and apply a touch of typhus. That thick-headed fever that stunts and maims. Forever shuffling a foot lower than most, the edge of sight flickering with black spots in her left eye.
Well what was her mother to do? It’s all very well to have those high-minded ideas about educating girls, my dear, but what use is all of that to this little waif? Oh, let her read and write a little. Even the status of governess – looking after other people’s children – is beyond this one. Get her down in the kitchen and at the sewing table otherwise she’ll be on the streets.
Oh, but her father tried. Slight-of-hand tutoring when the woman of the house was on errands but what time do you have for study when you manage the house? Scratching your sums into the hearth as you clean it, practising letters in the flour scum left on the table from your baking.
Imagine the riot inside her. Desire and rage and intellect and capability equal to that secured behind the buttons of her brother’s shirts. Take it and suffocate it with duty. Tell it that nothing will come of it but cleaning up after others.
One night her father took her out into the burnt night and showed her the stars. Picked out patterns and named constellations. The seed was planted. Who’d Have Thought? ask the history books and What a Strange Turn of Events! runs the encyclopaedia entry. Well What Did You Expect? would have been more fitting. Of course she earned medals and acclaim. That passion had to come out somewhere.
Dear William, she wrote in her diary. Obviously gratitude is warranted for prising me from the grip of our fatalistic mother and bringing me from Germany all the way to Bath, England, but do stop treating me like the housedog. One always seems to think that women need occupying. Train her up as a singer and put her in your shows. Then when you tire of your melodies and look up into the sky, tell her she must close her voice and help in other ways.
Have her ‘assist’ in your work. Which involves what, exactly? Well, let’s be honest, to begin with the same drudgery as back at dear Mama’s. One can’t possibly work on grinding mirrors for telescopes and make one’s own lunch. Just imagine. Those precious grey male cells concerned with such frivolous things.
Do assist, sister. But at least he had to teach her the things poor Papa failed in. How can I translate your maps and charts, dear brother, if you don’t teach me all that dreadfully dull maths and whatnot? At last a thirsty brain is allowed to drink. She closed the half-blind eye and let the other do the looking.
She discovered a nebula. Saw invisible things in the sky. And what praise for that, brother dearest? Do perch below me on the ladder and record what I see, sister. As if it should ever be the other way around.
Caroline Herschel comet discovery. Notes by German-British astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) on her observations of 2-3, 13 and 18 May 1790, of the comet now known as Comet C/1790 H1 (Herschel), discovered by her on 17 April 1790. Caroline assisted her elder brother William, making her own observations between 1788 and 1797 from Observatory House in Slough, UK. She observed many nebulae, and discovered eight comets between 1786 and 1797. For her astronomical work she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. For a sequence of observations of this comet, see C024/9084 to C024/9086.
Would she have found her comets if he hadn’t married? Hard to say. We certainly wouldn’t have the detailed charts and maps she compiled. Oh, how he found it a nuisance to do all that dreadfully dull stuff rather than look out for nebulas or fiddle with telescopes. Be a dear, sister, do address the mistakes that Flamsteed made when mapping the sky.
So she did. Minded the heavens for over a year and a half. Be thankful the error of this work being printed in her brother’s name did not go unnoticed. It was undone.
Eight comets in all. Her careful hand monitoring their trajectory. More illuminating – a wage. Paid affirmation that you are a worthwhile contributor to science. Imagine waiting until your thirty-seventh year to put a hand on any money that was rightfully yours.
Some found her grating. How she complained in her later life of the ailments that kept her from further discovery. Spending all that time cataloguing their work together lest it be lost. To finally have independence from her tiresome yet essential brother following his marriage and later death. Removing that burden of oh-you-will-be-nothing laid upon her by the woman who brought her into the world. Yet all realised so very late.
No wonder her last years were an agitated sigh to the very heavens she watched, that she’d had so little time.
What an amazing achievement, they said. At a time when women achieved so little, they said. Do not wallow in the triumph of her success unless you can also steep yourself in sorrow at what more she could have achieved if not so constricted.