If the aphorism that “behind every great man is a great woman” has proven to be an abundant source of material for historical novelists, Carrie Brown does the trope one better with her seventh novel, “The Stargazer’s Sister.” It paints a portrait of Caroline Herschel, who was not only the companion and assistant of her astronomer brother William Herschel, but an extraordinary woman of science herself.
Caroline, or Lina, as she’s called, suffers an unhappy childhood in 18th-century Hanover, Germany. A bout with smallpox as a girl leaves her scarred and unlikely to marry.
From her earliest memories, her beloved older brother encourages her curiosity about the world. Finally, when he has established himself in England after many years apart, William summons Lina to keep house for him and assist in his astronomical endeavors.
William aims to see farther into space than anyone ever has before, certain that there is much more to the universe than previously imagined. To that end, he constructs a 40-foot telescope, at that point the largest ever built.
Lina belongs to what her nephew’s wife calls “the noble company of unknown helpers,” and Brown excels at dwelling inside her mind. All day, she performs household chores, and all night she stays up with William, taking notes on his observations and making calculations. As charismatic and tireless as William is, he tends to take Lina for granted, and Brown shows us her simultaneous disappointment and unwavering devotion.
Caroline’s life is truly unique for its time, and she recognizes and celebrates that fact, though not without reflecting on the sacrifices it demands.
“The Stargazer’s Sister” takes place in a time when ideas that we hold to be fundamental were new and just being tested: that every body in the universe is in constant motion, that there are galaxies beyond our own, that there may be other suns with other planets capable of sustaining life.
Brown’s writing is brightest when re-creating this Enlightenment-era sense of awe William and Caroline bring to their work. Their reach toward the vastness of the universe reminds us of the poetry to be found in science.
Nebulae, for example, “these glittering vaults, star clouds rich with color and light, are like doorways into other, secret realms in the universe.”
Upon the discovery of the planet Uranus, William “expand(s) the universe around them as surely as if he had put his shoulder to the ceiling of the sky and pushed against it, heaving it open like a door.”
With a calm, polished style that suits its protagonist, the novel brings to life both sister and stargazer, with their individual and collective contributions to our understanding of the universe, shining like a pair of binary stars in orbit together.
“The Stargazer’s Sister,” by Carrie Brown (352 pages; Pantheon; $25.95)