Making her mark
History is full of individuals whose accomplishments have largely overlooked due to the simple fact that their stories didn’t fit in with the progression of great men of history. Recent years have seen a reassessment of women’s contributions in science especially, considering the many women who were either overshadowed by their male colleagues or whose work was not given due credit. Carrie Brown takes a little different tack by fictionalizing astronomer Caroline Herschel’s life in The Stargazer’s Sister. Brown embroiders a fictional ending for her heroine, but largely adheres to the truth, relying on the copious diaries and notes that Herschel left behind.
It is an atmospheric rather plot-driven work. Born into an impoverished Hanoverian family in 1750 with too many mouths to feed, Caroline survives only because of her doting elder brother William, who shares with her his fascination with the stars. When a bout with typhus leaves her under-sized and scarred, her fate as a drudge to her uncaring mother seems sealed. William steps in to rescue her and bring her to England, where he is employed as a musician. Really, though, William is fixated on constructing a forty foot telescope, an endeavor that many (including Caroline) see as impossible. Caroline is utterly devoted to her brother, sacrificing to extremes to make his dream happen. As William gains acclaim (he discovered Uranus in 1781 several moons of Saturn and was eventually knighted for his work), Caroline begins her own projects, scanning the skies in the hours that she is not occupied by housework.
Brown has a tricky job of preventing Caroline from appearing as a mere doormat to her brother’s endeavors, but I think she largely succeeds in creating a compelling portrait of a woman really coming into her own. It is most acutely felt when Caroline is unceremoniously (in Brown’s version) set aside when William marries and she loses full access to Observatory House and its instruments. Still, Caroline’s resilience is such for her to make her own mark on the universe, eventually achieving far more than her humble beginnings would have predicted. Today, her contributions to the study of comets and galaxies are recognized with both a moon crater and an asteroid named in her honor.
Brown tells Caroline’s story in a third person perspective, which lends the work a sort of appropriate observational tone. It’s also a bit dreamy—maybe it’s the many scenes set in the dark at the telescope, but I felt that Brown beautifully captured the wonder of discovering something truly new about the world and the inherent hopefulness that comes with it. Brown crafts a fictional ending for Caroline that I felt was kind of unnecessary, but perhaps Brown thought would wrap up some threads she felt important to the story. No matter. The Stargazer’s Sister is a quiet novel, and a warm look at a woman who made her own mark on the universe.