Book Reviews: The Stargazer’s Sister, by Carrie Brown, and Double the Stars, by Kelley Swain
“The stars and planets must be God’s particular delight”—The Stargazer’s Sister, chapter 6.
Two excellent historical novels,The Stargazer’s Sister, by Carrie Brown,and Double the Stars, by Kelley Swain, bring alive the story of Caroline Herschel, the “lady astronomer” of Jane Austen’s England. Caroline’s brother William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. Caroline gave him essential help in all his astronomical work, and discovered eight new comets on her own.
There are several good nonfiction sources on Caroline’s life, but fiction can be easier and more fun to read. I discovered the joys of historical fiction in college, when I read a novel about Ferdinand and Isabela of Spain. Suddenly history came alive to me. These were real people in the real world, thinking and feeling and experiencing joys and sorrows; I could connect with them. Since then I have loved good historical fiction, solidly based in history, and I’ve also used historical novels to teach my children.
Like nonfiction writers, historical fiction writers have to choose which events to include and how to explain them. These two novels give different perspectives and interpretations of Caroline Herschel’s life. Both authors read extensive primary source material on the Herschels (letters, journals, lists, scientific papers). Both made some changes in events and characters to better build their stories, and they invented dialogue and thoughts to fit the times and the story.
At the end of The Stargazer’s Sister, Carrie Brown explains some of the changes she made in her novel. She chose to leave out William Herschel’s son (who was quite close to his Aunt Caroline), minimize the roles of Caroline’s brothers, and add in two fictional characters who loved Caroline. Her focus is on the close relationship between Caroline and her brother William. Much of the book is told in the present tense, through Caroline’s eyes, making it feel immediate and personal.
The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown
The Stargazer’s Sister begins with Caroline’s childhood in Germany. We experience her loving but sickly father, her abusive mother and older brother Jacob, and her kind brother William, who teaches and nurtures her. A long bout of childhood illness (typhus and smallpox, according to Double the Stars) leaves Caroline with severe scarring on her face, which she is ashamed to have others see. Her father tells her she is not likely ever to marry, since she has no wealth or beauty.
William, however, rescues her from her mother’s cruelty and a life of drudgery. He takes her to England, and she determines never to disappoint him. His expectations are very high: that she will manage a household, cook meals, wash clothes, etc. on a very limited income; take lessons from him early each morning in music, astronomy, English, and more; practice singing and playing the harpsichord daily; copy documents and do calculations for him; and eventually spend the nights observing the stars with him and writing down his observations. She perseveres, learning to sleep less and balance many responsibilities, overcoming her shyness and lack of confidence.
Caroline gradually finds joy in these activities with and for her brother. She wants “to be of use to his greatness,” and she becomes indispensable to him in his astronomical discoveries. She finds delight in the stars: “She is grateful for this joy, the joy of being amazed, this transformation of her gaze from admiration—for anyone can see the stars are beautiful—to astonishment. This is William’s greatest gift to her, she thinks, the gift of awe. She lies down with it at night and wakes with it in the morning. Somehow, her awe makes what is quotidian or tedious—the tiring business of making meals or beds, or washing clothes—almost holy” (p. 220).
When William marries late in life, Caroline is devastated and angry for a time. Their close relationship has been interrupted. In The Stargazer’s Sister, William’s new wife moves her out of the house; in Double the Stars, it is Caroline’s own choice to leave. However, Caroline continues “sweeping the skies” with her telescope and discovering new comets (eight in all). Eventually she is able to forgive, and her relationship with her brother and his wife is restored.
The Stargazer’s Sister focuses on Caroline’s love for her brother, her struggle with singleness and other challenges, and her joy in astronomical work. She experiences two (totally fictional!) romances, though nothing interferes with her work for William. I enjoyed the occasional philosophical discussions showing William’s ideas, such as his strong belief that there was life on the moon and elsewhere in the universe.
Astronomy and Faith
For some people, Herschel’s discoveries about the size of the universe challenged their faith in God. William, though, disagrees with “those who say it is wrong to probe the heavens, that an astronomer aims to expose God, to…reduce him. They misunderstand. I aim not to diminish our awe, but to expand it” (p. 117). Later he says, “How could anyone look through a telescope . . . and not believe in God?” (p. 167).
One Scottish theologian found his faith expanded by Herschel’s discoveries, and wrote to him, “To consider creation in all its departments as extending throughout space and filled with intelligent existence makes certain beyond all ardent doubt my own sense of the God who inhabits immensity and whose perfections are boundless and past finding out” (p. 295).
Double the Stars by Kelley Swain
While The Stargazer’s Sister explores Caroline’s heart and expands parts of her life, Double the Stars gives a more complete picture of her life and world. We get to see more of Caroline’s colorful city of Bath (where Jane Austen lived a few years later), her musical career (interrupted by William’s dream of building a giant telescope), the observatory at Greenwich, the Royal Court, and Caroline’s encounters with real people including the King and Queen of England, the Duchess of Devonshire, and Fanny Burney (Madame d’Arblay), a popular novelist whose books Jane Austen enjoyed.
For example, when Caroline makes a midnight ride to Greenwich to have her eighth comet verified, she sees that the main building, Flamsteed House, is a “fairy-castle of red brick and white trim.” She remembers that the building was first erected on the wrong spot, not on the Greenwich Meridian; astronomers had to make observations from a shed which was on the meridian, keeping the mistake a secret from King Charles II. She sees the Time Ball, a red ball on a mast, which is raised daily at 12:58 and lowered at 13:00, so ships on the Thames can set their clocks accurately. She even learns about the ravens, who used to foul the telescopes at the Tower of London. The birds were protected because of a superstition that if they left, the Tower and the ruler would fall. Moving to Greenwich helped protect the telescopes from the ravens’ depradations!
Double the Stars also shows us more of Caroline’s achievements. She becomes the first woman in England to receive regular payment for scientific work when the Queen grants her an annuity of fifty pounds per year. She revises the Star Catalogue used at the time, making extensive corrections that helped astronomers and navigators around the world.
Double the Stars gives Caroline a fictional romance as well. Her supposed sweetheart was a real French astronomer who she met and corresponded with.
Swain and Brown both emphasize Caroline’s perseverance and her love for her brother. Swain (Double the Stars) shows a Caroline who is more confident with others, covering her scars with makeup rather than hiding away, loving her singing career and finding it hard to give up. This Caroline enjoys her friends and builds relationships outside of her family. Double the Stars is much shorter than The Stargazer’s Sister, but develops the history more widely and more faithfully. The Stargazer’s Sister focuses on different aspects of Caroline and William’s lives and thoughts. Both are highly recommended.
“The heavens declare the glory of God,” according to Psalm 19. In the England of Jane Austen and William and Caroline Herschel, many assumed the heavens were perfect and unchanging, like God. Revelations of the universe’s enormous size, and changes such as comets passing through, challenged those assumptions. Some felt that in such a big universe, God could not possibly care about man. (“When I look at the heavens . . . what is man that you are mindful of him?” asks the Psalmist in Psalm 8: 3,4.) How does modern scientific knowledge about the stars and the “heavens” affect your understanding of, and belief in, God?
Brown, Carrie. The Stargazer’s Sister: A Novel. New York: Pantheon, 2015. Kindle version by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Swain, Kelley. Double the Stars: A Novel. Gwynedd: Cinnamon Press, 2014.
Herschel Museum of Astronomy in Bath, England is a fascinating place to visit and learn more.
Nonfiction Books on Caroline Herschel, recommended by Kelley Swain:
Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel, 1876.
The Herschel Chronicles: The Life-Story of William Herschel and his Sister Caroline Herschel, edited by Constance A. Lubbock, 1933. (Lots of good material.)
The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes, 2009. (Fascinating!)
The Comet Sweeper: Caroline Herschel’s Astronomical Ambition, by Claire Brock, 2007.