Published by Pantheon
Publication date: January 19th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Much of Caroline Herschel’s life is spent alone with her angry, unhappy mother, working as little better than a slave for a woman who has never shown her any interest or kindness. As a young girl she contracted typhus but it is the 1700s and there is nothing to be done but hope she survives. When she does it is to even greater misery from her mother who seems to enjoy telling her that her pockmarked face and stunted height mean she will never attract a husband. Caroline’s only source of joy is her older brother, William, who treats her with respect and kindness, teaching her to read and, even more importantly, to think. William is the family’s great hope—a musician, scientist, and astronomer with an infinite capacity to learn. He leaves their family in Germany when he is nineteen and goes to England where his wide and varied career as a musician brings him into contact with men of science and soon astronomy is his only focus. It is when he receives a letter from the twenty-two-year-old Lina that says only “Save me” that he returns from England and she becomes The Stargazer’s Sister, in Carrie Brown’s deeply profound historical novel.
Even as Brown conveys the degradation of Lina’s early life she does so within the context of the times. Lina’s mother is hard and cold, but she is a woman with no options, married to a kind, but weak man whose only success is in getting her pregnant, with ten children in all, with no consistent means of supporting them. He passes along his love of music and knowledge, giving his sons the opportunity to grow, but in the case of a daughter it is not feasible. Without beauty her mother sees her as a burden, fit only for housework, and so, until William takes her back to England (after having to pay their mother for her ‘release’), her life is as stunted as her height. Once in England, Lina becomes her brother’s assistant as his knowledge and abilities in astronomy grow. When he is hindered by the lack of proper lenses to build the telescopes necessary to see far into the skies he designs and makes them himself. Slowly, his discoveries make him a leading astronomer of his times, always with Lina by his side taking notes and helping him to write his papers.
What Brown frames so exquisitely in The Stargazer’s Sister is the difference intention and motivation make for any human endeavor. What Caroline does for her brother William is not much different than the backbreaking drudgery she did for their mother, who is cruel and abusive, but in the case of William, whom she adores, to whom she is wholeheartedly devoted, it is the smallest of sacrifices. Living without sleep, food, nice clothes, all in pursuit of his ambition and expensive passion is all she wants from life because it is this work that gives her a view outside her physical self, into a world beyond most people’s understanding. Ultimately, William’s efforts to educate Lina shine and become clear in her analysis of scientific principles—not just as his assistant but for what becomes her own work. His work may come first, but when he travels she grows beyond him, spending nights looking at the stars—not to record his findings but her own.
It is simply more engaging, she concludes, to be the stargazer than to be the stargazer’s assistant.
The balance that Brown strikes between the physical realities of life in the late 1700s with an occupation that requires large amounts of money but brings in little, despite recognition, and the intellectual and emotional rewards of such endeavors is one of the more finely wrought aspects that make The Stargazer’s Sister a work deserving of the highest praise. This is not a novel of champagne and roses—it is of grueling work and deprivation. William is a loving brother but he is obsessed with the stars to the point of not only neglecting himself but his sister, whose health was irreversibly damaged by decades of illness. His marriage leaves Lina alone and often reliant on others for her care. It is only as William ages that she truly comes into her own, with Brown giving a beautiful sense of how, even when devoting a life to another the time can come for the self. Within the complex dynamic of their relationship, the tender regard and respect each has for the other’s intellect and achievement is never in doubt. It is these thoughts and themes, touchingly brought to life by Brown’s elegant prose, that make The Stargazer’s Sister much like a clear night’s sky. The deeper one looks, the more there is to see.