A few years ago my husband bought me a book called The Astronomer’s Wife. It was a strange and fascinating biography of Angeline Hall whose husband Asaph discovered the moons of Mars in 1877. It’s clear from the account (written by a surprisingly misogynistic son by the way), that his father’s discoveries would never have happened without the care, dedication and support of a very remarkable woman. So here I am, an “astronomer’s wife”, contributing a quick book review, in case any wives, husbands, brothers or sisters out there might be interested in the impact of relationships on the unending study of our universe!
This Christmas a new book arrived, same source as before, this time with the title, The Stargazer’s Sister. This fictionalised account is the story of Caroline Herschel, sister of the much more famous William. It’s a great read and manages to combine a personal and somewhat romanticised life story with some real astronomy.
The story charts an unhappy childhood in Hanover, the ravages of smallpox, the exceptional brilliance of William and the complete and utter devotion of Caroline, who gives her whole life to supporting her brother as he obsessively observes the night skies, building a telescope many times bigger than anything created before, and discovering Uranus in 1781.
My own experience of those moments when I’m enticed out of doors to view the wonders of the night sky is that it somehow always seems to be much more bitterly cold than at any other moment, and I don’t tend to stay for long. So I take my proverbial hat off to Caroline (although I’m keeping my gloves and scarf on). Clearly I haven’t shown the same level of commitment to my husband’s science as she did for her brother, spending her days keeping house for him and her nights recording his observations.
Truth is, Caroline, influenced by her brother, becomes a recognised astronomer in her own right, discovering a number of comets and becoming the first woman to be awarded a medal by the Royal Astronomical Society.
Are great women of history only to be defined by their relationship to famous men? As well as these stories from science there are of course plenty of parallels in other walks of life. Talented musician Clara Schumann was clearly influenced by her more famous husband Robert, but now music historians are realising that many of her compositions were passed off as his.
Feminist musings apart, in a world where individual achievements are celebrated above all else, maybe both these stories say something profound about how teamwork between people sharing their lives together can lead to immense achievements. Caroline’s achievements were recognised at the time and are all the more remarkable because they were achieved counter to expectations of how a woman might succeed.
Astronomer’s wife? It’s not the only defining thing about me, but it’s true and I’ll wear it!