Did you know there was an important woman astronomer during the Regency? Caroline Herschel was born in Germany, in 1750. She accompanied her brother, William Herschel, to England, to serve as his housekeeper and also his assistant, and continued to study the stars until her death in 1848.
I found this letter from Caroline to her sister and thought I’d share.
William is away, and I am minding the heavens. I have discovered eight new comets and three nebulae never before seen by man, and I am preparing an index to Flamsteed’s observations, together with a catalogue of 560 stars omitted from the British Catalogue, plus a list of errata in that publication.
William says I have a way with numbers, so I handle all the necessary reductions and calculations. I also plan every night’s observation schedule, for he says my intuition helps me turn the telescope to discover star cluster after star cluster.
I have helped him polish the mirrors and lenses of our new telesope. It is the largest in existence. Can you imagine the thrill of turning it to some new corner of the heavens to see something never before seen from earth? I actually like that he is busy with the Royal Society and his club, for when I finish my other work I can spend all night sweeping the heavens.
Sometimes when I am alone in the dark, and the universe reveals yet another secret, I say the names of my long lost sisters, forgotten in the books that record our science:
Aganice of Thessaly,
–as if the stars themselves could remember. Did you know that Hildegard proposed a heliocentric universe 300 years before Copernicus? That she wrote of universal gravitation 500 years before Newton? But who would listen to her? She was just a nun, a woman.
What is our age, if that age was dark? As for my name, it will also be forgotten, but I am not accused of being a sorceress, like Aganice, and the Christians do not threaten to drag me to church, to murder me, like they did Hyptia of Alexandria, the eloquent young woman who devised the instruments used to accurately measure the position and motion of heavenly bodies.
However long we live, life is short, so I work. And however important man becomes, he is nothing compared to the stars. There are secrets, dear sister, and it is for us to reveal them. Your name, like mine, is a song.
Doesn’t she sound like someone we’d like to meet? I would love to tell her that in our day, there are little girls who think it’s cool to celebrate a birthday at an observatory. I think it would make her smile.
LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE, RT Reviewers’ Choice Award, Best Regency Romance
I find a lot of people don’t know about this museum in Bath, so naturally whenever I get the opportunity I spread the word. It’s the home of the astronomer William Herschel, and where he discovered the planet Uranus in 1781 (I mean, through a telescope. He didn’t find a major planet lying around among the old newspapers, which is the sort of thing, on a less celestial scale, that happens in my house). Herschel’s story is fascinating. He was a refugee from Hanover and a musician (you can buy recordings of his works), and traveled around England for a time as an itinerant music teacher before settling in Bath. There, one of his pupils paid him with a telescope, and he figured out he could make a better one. So he did. His sister Caroline joined him in England and was also an astronomer, and after the discovery of Uranus many famous names flocked to his observatory at 19 New King St. Eventually King George III invited him to move near Windsor to continue his work there.
The house is gorgeous and intimate–on a much smaller and modest scale than the houses of the Royal Crescent, for instance, and beautifully restored (I kidnapped a pic of the music room–note the “wall to wall” carpeting–actually long strips of carpet, and the intricate wallpaper) and full of Herschel’s books, furniture, and telescopes. His laboratory still features the cracked flagstones from a mishap of 1781. There’s also a charming garden, with a replica of his telescope.
I only discovered this museum the last time I visited Bath and I’ve been in love with it ever since.
Anyone else care to share their favorite place?