On a March night in 1781, standing on a platform in the garden behind his house in Slough, England, William Herschel scans deep sky through a 40-foot telescope, looking for stars 10 times dimmer than those that could be seen by the naked eye. He shouts out his findings to a sister, Caroline (Lina) Herschel, who diligently records them in a daybook. On this night he spots a new planet, which he calls Georgium Sidus, in honor of King George III, later renamed Uranus.
While the siblings' work is well documented, Carrie Brown's novel, "The Stargazer's Sister," focuses on Lina's contribution to their work and adds emotional depth with her struggles and conflicting feelings about her role. Thanks to the siblings' meticulous records, Brown was able to draw from journals, daybooks, letters, musings and scientific papers in creating a fully realized woman.
Lina, born in 1750 into a household of talented musicians in Hanover, Germany, was a sickly child, her growth stunted by typhus, her face scarred by smallpox. Deemed unmarriageable by her family, she suffered greatly at the hand of an abusive mother who relegated her bright, curious daughter to the role of servant.
William teaches his younger sister math, science and the philosophy that "it is curiosity, first, and then in knowledge and reflection that freedom rests."
When she is a young woman, William rescues her from the drudgery of her mother's household, bringing her to Bath, England, where he is the concertmaster and organist at a chapel, but it's their mutual passion for astronomy that leads brother and sister to their scientific calling. Later they move to larger quarters in Slough and build William's giant telescope.
Each day brings lessons in calculations used to establish the positions of celestial objects in the sky, enabling her to assist him. She helps him manufacture telescopes, works at his side on many nights, cataloging the stars and nebulae he finds there, runs the household and keeps records of their work.
The reader may become impatient with her undying devotion to her brother, who is often oblivious to her labor and concerns. When he marries in midlife and requires her to move out of his house, it's a devastating blow, but one that allows her to use all she's learned to make her own discoveries, for which she later receives many honors.
The novel depicts an increasingly independent woman who also struggles with the loneliness and the physical and emotional toll of the work. With a flourish of literary kindness, Brown gives Lina a satisfying (fictional) love relationship, which she accounts for in her detailed author's comments at the end of the book.
In the last days of her life, it's Lina who teaches a young girl how to look at the sky. Quoting the Royal Astronomical Society's motto, Lina tells the youngster, "Let whatever shines be noted." With her novel, Brown does just that.
Elfrieda Abbe is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer and book critic. She's formerly the editor in chief of the Writer magazine.
THE STARGAZER’S SISTER
By: Carrie Brown.
Publisher: Pantheon Books, 352 pages, $25.95.