Although the genius of astronomer William Hershel is widely acknowledged, less known is his sister, Caroline (Lina) Hershel. The Stargazer's Sister opens in 1755 in a world
where youthful Lina envies of all of her brothers--Jacob, William, and Alexander--all such clever scholars and musicians. Trapped at her mother’s side and condemned to listen to her chronic anger, Lina at last writes to William to plead for his help and to beg for his rescue: “Dearest Lina, I am making plans; I have not forgotten you.” Lina’s only chance of success and of leaving her childhood home comes from William; he’s the only member of her family who really knows and understands her.
Soon she finds herself sailing far away, abandoning her life in Hanover. England’s “invisible shore” beckons, and her old life--the life she had always imagined--is finally gone. Less than a year later, Lina
is settled in the town of Bath, happy to be chief cook and cleaner for her
beloved brother while also assisting him in his astronomical projects, most
notably the construction of his giant 40-foot telescope, the mechanics of which will soon give Lina are new understanding of the astronomer’s tools and the illuminated world of hazy starlight. Plagued with a wild feeling
(“part terror, part elation"), Lina is exultant that her brother has finally emancipated her.
Around them is the constant night sky: resplendent, royally decorated, “assemblies of stars stepping forth.” Lina senses it is this darkness that is somehow hurtling away.
In The Stargazer's Sister, handsome, strong William is the main source of Lina’s passion for astronomy.
His presence is always beside Lina, and her love for him is reinforced by her constant entreaties that beside her brother, other people’s flaws seem especially noticeable. Equally loyal is William, who accompanies Lina to her singing recitals, recitals that are necessary in order to attract potential sponsors and procure funds sufficient to accomplish what he intends.
Though Lina’s scarred face--left over from the ghost of a childhood fever--sometimes blunts her self-confidence, William is always at her side, his innocence, endless optimism, and faith providing a bulwark against the unceasing battles that he and Lina must wage to persuade those who doubt him.
Thoroughly at home in the happy, if poor, Bath home, Lina is absolutely enthralled with her older brother.
It seems as though all of their waking hours are taken up studying the night sky with its many cosmological quandaries and questions. Lina soon learns from William that what they see with the naked eye is only a fraction of what surrounds them. Lina is quick to acknowledge that her brother will not be satisfied until he has built a telescope so large and powerful that he can look beyond the perimeter of the known world and into the infinite.
Every penny goes towards the household’s needs and to William’s pursuits.
There are many painful moments when Lina must tell her brother the cold, hard truth: there are insufficient funds to pay their creditors. While William’s discovery of the giant planet Uranus is brilliant in its accomplishment, Lina’s own discoveries are just as vivid and gifted.
As she begins the journal that she will keep--except for one long, terrible silence--for the rest of her rife, her discovery of a number of comets will thrust her into the mainstream of astronomical thought, her scientific skills marking her as a prize in a field predominantly governed by men.
The difficult young years in Hanover, the construction of William’s giant telescope, Lina’s friendships with local boy Stanley
and with Sir Henry Spencer, who welcomes her to England, grateful for the telescopes William has made for him, her time in Observatory House in Kew where she has no money of her own and is dependent on William’s kindness and on his new wife’s conscience and fortune--all
of these form the elaborate make-up of Lina’s existence, a life as wondrous and interesting and varied as any woman who ever lived before her.
Rich and multi-layered, this love story of a sister and her brother is always a pleasure to read, providing us with a fascinating glimpse into a life that changed our understanding of the cosmos and our place within it. Brown excels in showing us how Lina Hershel left her indelible mark on science, one that is greatly enhanced with startling promise, more than anyone could have possibly imagined considering the time period in which she lived.