Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/April 1876/Caroline Lucretia Herschel I

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PSM V08 D660 Caroline Herschel.jpg

MOST people in this country have heard of Miss Caroline Herschel the astronomer. Without knowing much about her, she has been vaguely regarded by the public as a profound scientific genius, the strong-minded peer and coadjutor of her brother, the illustrious Sir William Herschel. It is supposed that she rose above the narrow sphere of woman's usual domestic life, and spent her time in studying the universe and making astronomical discoveries. She has been often cited, in the recent discussions of the woman question, as an illustration of the intellectual equality of the sexes and as demonstrating to the world what woman is capable of doing in science when she gets a fair opportunity.

Miss Herschel's memoirs have just appeared, made up mostly from her diary and correspondence, edited by Mrs. John Herschel. In this interesting volume we get a view of her real character, and discover that the notions generally accepted are widely mistaken. We learn from her diary and letters that, while she was a thrifty and interested housekeeper, she had neither the taste, the ambition, nor the mental qualities, that would have insured distinction in an independent intellectual career. It is seen that she became an astronomer by accident, as it were, and through the strength of her affection rather than of her intellect. When she found that her brother had resolved to take her as his assistant in his astronomic labors, it made her miserable for a time; and he chose her instead of either of his brothers, not because of her brilliant mind, but on account of her persevering devotion to his interests and her dexterity and readiness in doing an assistant's work.

The lesson of this book is very important to ambitious girls who despise domestic concerns, and long for an "intellectual" career. Her science, as such, gave Miss Herschel no great enjoyment; her happiness came from her womanly devotion to her brother's ambitious work; and the book will be found painfully interesting as it discloses the sufering she also experienced as the penalty of this unselfish devotion.

Miss Herschel lived to the great age of ninety-seven years and ten months, and retained her faculties bright to the last. We give a portrait, taken from the biography, which represents her at the age of ninety-two. In the following sketch we shall let her speak for herself, as far as practicable, as nothing can exceed the graphic simplicity of her diary. But, as she was a German, and did not begin to study English till she went to England, at the age of twenty-two, there are defects in her writing, for which the reader will make due allowance.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was the eighth of a family of ten children, four of whom died in childhood. Her father was band-master in the regiment of Guards at Hanover, and all his children had musical genius. He took great pains to cultivate his sons in music, and sent them to the garrison school for their routine education. As they grew up they all became musicians and joined the regiment band. At Dettingen, in 1743, the father was wounded and left all night in a wet furrow, and lie had ever after an impaired constitution and an asthmatical affection. This event cast a shadow upon the family, and when Caroline was born, in 1750, in the gloomy period of the Seven Years' War, the mother's temper seems to have been already warped by trouble. Her turn of mind was practical and plodding, while the father was intellectual and aspiring. It is abundantly evident that Caroline had a bitter and desolate childhood. Expressions of affection or regard from her relatives were very rare in her experience, while her own sympathies had a most precocious development. It is said that when only three years old she was deeply concerned about family troubles.

Her only sister, the oldest child of the family, was married to a musician named Griesbach. Jacob, the eldest brother, was organist at the garrison church; and William, four years younger, was already remarkable for his splendid talents, apart from music. In the following passage from her diary we have a picture of the family at this time:

"My brothers were often introduced as solo performers and assistants in the orchestra of the court, and I remember that I was frequently prevented from going to sleep by the lively criticism on music on coming from a concert, or conversations on philosophical subjects, which lasted frequently till morning, in which my father was a lively partaker and assistant of my brother William by contriving self-made instruments. . . . Often I would keep myself awake that I might listen to their animating remarks, for it made me so happy to see them so happy. But generally their conversation would branch out on philosophical subjects, when my brother William and my father often argued with such warmth that my mother's interference became necessary, when the names of Leibnitz, Newton, and Euler, sounded rather too loud for the repose of her little ones, who ought to be in school by seven in the morning. But it seems that on the brothers retiring to their own room, where they shared the same bed, my brother William had still a great deal to say; and frequently it happened that, when he stopped for an assent or reply, be found his hearer was gone to sleep; and I suppose it was not till then he bethought himself to do the same.
"The recollection of these happy scenes confirms me in the belief that, had my brother William not then been interrupted in his philosophical pursuits, we should have had much earlier proofs of his inventive genius. My father was a great admirer of astronomy, and had some knowledge of that science; for I remember his taking me into the street to make me acquainted with several of the most beautiful constellations, after we had been gazing at a comet which was then visible. And I well remember with what delight he used to assist my brother William in his various contrivances in the pursuit of his philosophical studies, among which was a neatly-turned four-inch globe, upon which the equator and the ecliptic were engraved by my brother."

But this little household was soon broken up, the regiment of Guards being ordered to England in 1755. The parting scenes are thus described:

"In our room all was mute, but in hurried action; my dear father was thin and pale, and my brother William almost equally so, for he was of a delicate constitution, and growing fast. Of my brother Jacob, I only remember his starting difficulties at every thing that was done for him, as my father was busy to see that they were equipped with the necessaries for a march. The whole town was in motion, with drums beating to march; the troops hallooed and roared in the streets, the drums beat louder. Griesbach came to join my father and brothers, and in a moment they were all gone. My sister fled to her own room, Alexander," [her third brother] "went with many others to follow their relatives for some miles, to take a last look. I found myself now with my mother, alone in a room all in confusion, in one corner of which my little brother Dietrich lay in his cradle; my tears flowed, like my mother's, but neither of us could speak. I snatched a large handkerchief of my father's from a chair, and took a stool to place it at my mother's feet, on which I sat down, and put into her hands one corner of the handkerchief, reserving the opposite one for myself. This little action actually drew a momentary smile into her face."

They were gone a year, and of this period of separation she gives no recollections; but in her account of their welcome home we see how affectionate she was and how neglected she felt, and the kind treatment of her brother William could not fail to make a deep impression upon her susceptible nature:

"My mother, being very busy in preparing dinner, had suffered me to go all alone to the parade to meet my father, but I could not find him anywhere, nor anybody whom I knew ; so at last, when nearly frozen to death, I came home and found them all at table. My dear brother William threw down his knife and fork and ran to welcome, and crouched down to me, which made me forget all my grievances. The rest were so happy at seeing one another again that my absence had never been perceived."

In 1757 it became apparent that William had not the strength to stay in the Guards in war time, and his parents, with no small difficulty, sent him away to England.

When very young, Caroline went to the garrison school till three in the afternoon, and then to another school to be taught knitting. From the time she was six or seven years old, she says:

"I was fully employed in providing my brothers with stockings, and remember that the first pair for Alexander touched the floor when I stood upright, finishing the front. Besides this my pen was frequently in requisition for writing, not only my mother's letters to my father, but many a poor soldier's wife in our neighborhood to her husband in camp."

From 1757 till 1760 there is another gap in the record, several pages having been torn from her manuscript belonging to this period. In 1760 her father came home for good, broken in health and worn out with hardships, and we are again furnished with some details of the family history. He devoted himself for the rest of his life to the musical education of his children, and gave lessons besides to the numerous pupils who sought his instruction. Next to her brother William, her father was the object of her dearest love. She was her mother's companion and, assistant, and, as the income was straitened, they together did all the housework. The mother was a diligent spinner, and kept the family well stocked with household linen. Her sister had not a patient temper, and was sometimes left, with her goods and chattels, to be taken care of by her mother. As to Jacob, who was often at home, and who developed into a dandy while in England, she speaks of him as follows:

"When he came to dine with us it generally happened that before he departed his mother was as much out of humor with him as he was at the beefsteaks being hard, and because I did not know how to clean knives and forks with brick-dust." And again: "When he honored the humble table with his presence, poor I got many a whipping for being awkward at supplying the place of footman or waiter."

It is said that his love of luxury was shown in the specimens of English goods and English tailoring he brought back with him from England, while all that William brought back was a copy of Locke "On the Human Understanding," which took all his private means.

When her father came home to stay he helped her some, and yet, poor man, he did it under difficulties. The parents had never agreed upon the subject of her education. She says:

"My father wished to give me something like a polished education, but my mother was particularly determined that it should be a rough but at the same time a useful one; and nothing further she thought was necessary but to send me two or three months to a seamstress to be taught to make household linen. Having added this accomplishment to my former ingenuities, I never afterward could find leisure for thinking of any thing but to contrive and make for the family, in all imaginable forms, whatever was wanting; and thus I learned to make bags and sword-knots long before I knew how to make caps and furbelows. . . . My mother would not consent to my being taught French, and my brother Dietrich was even denied a dancing-master, because she would not permit my learning along with him, though the entrance had been paid for us both; so all my father could do for me was to indulge me (and please himself) sometimes with a short lesson on the violin, when my mother was either in good-humor or out of the way. Though I have often felt myself exceedingly at a loss for the want of those few accomplishments of which I was thus, by an erroneous though well-meant opinion of my mother, deprived, I could not help thinking but that she had cause for wishing me not to know more than was necessary for being useful in the family; for it was her certain belief that my brother William would have returned to his country, and my eldest brother not have looked so high, if they had had a little less learning. . . . But sometimes I found it scarcely possible to get through with the work required, and felt very unhappy that no time at all was left for improving myself in music or fancy-work, in which I had an opportunity of receiving some instruction from an ingenious young woman whose parents lived in the same house with us. But the time wanted for spending a few hours together could only be obtained by our meeting at daybreak, because by the time of the family's rising, at seven, I was obliged to be at my daily business. Though I had neither time nor means for producing any thing immediately, either for show or use, I was content with keeping samples of all possible patterns in needlework, beads, bugles, horsehair, etc., for I could not help feeling troubled sometimes about my future destiny; yet I could not bear the idea of being turned into an abigail or housemaid, and thought that with the above and such like acquirements, and with a little notion of music, I might obtain a place as governess in some family where the want of a knowledge of French would be no objection."

As year by year passed by, William's attachment to England grew stronger. But the poor father, who was failing in strength, became more and more eager for his return, and on the 2d of April, 1764, to the great joy of the family, he made his appearance. The visit was brief, and gave no hope that he would settle in Hanover. In describing it, Caroline is spoken of as "the poor little unnoticed girl," and the event as standing in her memory "fraught with anguish too deep for words." She was disappointed in her hope of enjoying this visit of her brother, for it came at the time of her confirmation. She says:

"With my constant attendance at church and school, besides the time I was employed in doing the drudgery of the scullery, it was but seldom I could make one of the group when the family were assembled together."

The Sunday fixed for his departure was the very day on which she was to receive her first communion:

"The church was crowded and the door open. The Hamburger post-wagon passed at eleven, bearing away my dear brother, from whom I had been obliged to part at eight o'clock. It was within a dozen yards from the open door; the postilion giving a smettering blast on his horn. Its effect on my shattered nerves I will not attempt to describe, nor what I felt for days and weeks after. I wish it were possible to say what I wish to say, without feeling anew that feverish wretchedness which accompanied my walk in the afternoon with some of my school-companions, in my black-silk dress and bouquet of artificial flowers, the same which had served my sister on her bridal day. I could think of nothing but that on my return I should find nobody but my disconsolate father and mother, for Alexander's engagements allowed him to be with us only at certain hours, and Jacob was seldom at home except to dress and take his meals."

The last years of her father's life are thus described:

"Changes of abode, not always for the better; anxieties, on account of Alexander's prospects, and Jacob's vagaries; disappointment at seeing his daughter grow up without the education he had hoped to give her—were the circumstances under which the worn-out sufferer struggled through the last three years of his life, copying music at every spare moment, assisting at a concert only a few weeks before his death, and giving lessons until he was obliged to keep wholly to his bed. He was released from his sufferings at the comparatively early age of sixty-one, on the 22d of March, 1767, leaving to his children little more than the heritage of his good example, unblemished character, and those musical talents which he had so carefully educated, and by which he probably hoped the more gifted of his sons would attain to eminence."

Caroline was now seventeen, with only the barest rudiments of education, and for the next two years the time passed uneventfully in household occupations; but at the age of twenty a new turn was suddenly given to her thoughts by the arrival of letters from William, proposing that she should join him at Bath, in England.

"To make trial if by his instruction I might not become a useful singer for his winter concerts and oratorios, he advised my brother Jacob to give me some lessons by way of beginning; but that, if after a trial of two years we should not find it answer our expectation, he would bring me back again. This at first seemed agreeable to all parties, but, by the time I had set my heart upon it, Jacob began to turn the whole scheme into ridicule, and, of course, he never heard the sound of my voice except in speaking, and yet I was left in the harassing uncertainty whether I was to go or not. I resolved at last to prepare as far as lay in my power for both cases by taking every chance, when all were from home, to imitate, with a gag between my teeth, the solo part of concertos, shake and all, such as I had heard them play on the violin; and I thus gained a tolerable execution before I learned to sing. I next began to knit ruffles, etc. For my mother and Brother Dietrich, I knitted as many stockings as would last two years at least."

During all this time she was sorely troubled about her duty in the matter of leaving her mother, and she thus speaks of her feelings:

"In this manner (making prospective clothes for them) I tried to still the compunction I felt at leaving relatives who, I feared, would lose some of their comforts by my desertion, and nothing but the belief of returning to them full of knowledge and accomplishments could have supported me in the parting moment. . . . My brother William, at last, quite unexpectedly arrived. . . . His stay at Hanover could at the utmost not be prolonged above a fortnight. … My mother had consented to my going with him, and the anguish at my leaving her was somewhat alleviated by my brother settling a small annuity on her, by which she would be enabled to keep an attendant to supply my place. . . . But I will not attempt to describe my feelings when the parting moment arrived and I left my dear mother and most dear Dietrich, on Sunday, August 16, 1772."

After a dismal journey of six days and nights, in an open post-wagon through Holland, and a stormy passage across the Channel, she arrived in England on the 26th, bareheaded, her bonnet having been blown into a canal from the post-wagon, and the first part of her "Recollections" ends with an account of her experiences in London at this time.

Before resuming Miss Herschel's diary it is needful to explain that, at the time she came to live with him, William Herschel was an eminent teacher of music at Bath, an organist with a choir under his management, a composer of anthems, chants, etc., and director of public concerts. But he followed music solely for the income it afforded; every leisure moment he could get by night or by day being devoted to the study of astronomy. He was known among his music-pupils as an astronomer, and some of them had lessons from him in this science as well as in music. He early applied his inventive talents to the improvement of telescopes. He began by getting from one of the shops a two-and-a-half-foot Gregorian telescope which served for viewing the heavens and for studying the construction of the instrument. Then he began to make instruments himself, which he went on improving and enlarging till at last the mirror for his great forty-foot telescope resulted. Such were the occupations of the brother whom Miss Herschel came to England to help. What she did and with what success is told in the following extracts from her "Recollections:"

"On the afternoon of August 28, 1772, I arrived with my brother at his house at Bath, No. 7 New King Street. I knew no more English than the few words which I had on our journey learned to repeat like a parrot, and it may be easily supposed that it would require some time before I could feel comfortable among strangers. But, as the season for the arrival of visitors to the baths does not begin till October, my brother had leisure to try my capacity for becoming a useful singer for his concerts and oratorios, and, being very well satisfied with ray voice, I had two or three lessons every day, and the hours which were not spent at the harpsichord were employed in putting me in the way of managing the family. . . . On the second morning, on meeting my brother at breakfast, he began immediately to give me a lesson in English and arithmetic, and showed me the way of booking and keeping accounts of cash received and laid out. . . .
"My brother Alexander, who had been some time in England, boarded and lodged with his elder brother, and with myself occupied the attic. The first floor, which was furnished in the newest and most handsome style, my brother kept for himself. The front-room, containing the harpsichord, was always in order to receive his musical friends and scholars at little private concerts or rehearsals. . . . Sundays I received a sum for the weekly expenses, of which my housekeeping book (written in English) showed the amount laid out, and my purse the remaining cash. One of the principal things required was to market, and about six weeks after coming to England I was sent alone among fishwomen, butchers, basket-women, etc., and I brought home whatever in my fright I could pick up. . . . My brother Alexander used to watch me at a distance, unknown to me, till he saw me safe on my way home. I knew too little of English to derive any consolation from the society of those who were about me, so that, dinner-time excepted, I was entirely left to myself."

Of the progress of her musical education, we are told that she was much hindered by being continually called upon to assist in the manufacture of telescopes:

"It soon appeared that my brother was not contented with knowing what former observers had seen, for he began to contrive a telescope eighteen or twenty feet long, and I had to amuse myself with making the tube of pasteboard for the glasses, which were to arrive from London, for at that time no optician had settled at Bath. . . . My brother wrote to inquire the price of a reflecting mirror for, I believe, a five or six foot telescope. The answer was, there were none of so large a size, but a person offered to make one at a price much above what my brother thought proper to give. . . . About this time he bought of a Quaker at Bath, who had made attempts at polishing mirrors, all his rubbish of patterns, tools, hones, polishers, unfinished mirrors, etc., but all for small Gregorians, not above two or three inches in diameter.
"Nothing serious could be attempted, for want of time, till the beginning of June, when some of my brother's scholars were leaving Bath; and' then, to my sorrow, I saw almost every room turned into a workshop. A cabinet-maker making a tube and stands of all descriptions in a handsomely-furnished drawing-room; Alexander putting up a huge turning-machine (which he had brought in the autumn from Bristol, where he used to spend the summer) in a bedroom, for turning patterns, grinding glasses, and turning eye-pieces, etc. At the same time music durst not lie entirely dormant during the summer, and my brother had frequent rehearsals at home, where Miss Farinelli, an Italian singer, was met by several of the principal performers he had engaged for the winter concerts. . . . He composed glees, catches, etc., for such voices as he could secure. As soon as I could pronounce English well enough I was obliged to attend the rehearsals, and on Sundays at morning and evening service.
"But every leisure moment was eagerly snatched at for resuming some work which was in progress, without taking time for changing dress, and many a lace ruffle[1] was torn or bespattered by molten pitch, etc., besides the danger to which he continually exposed himself by the uncommon precipitancy of all his actions, of which we had a sample one Saturday evening, when both brothers returned from a concert between eleven and twelve o'clock, my eldest brother pleasing himself all the way home with being at liberty to spend the next day (except a few hours' attendance at chapel) at the turning-bench; but, recollecting that the tools wanted sharpening, they ran with a lantern and tools to our landlord's grindstone, in a public yard, where they did not wish to be seen on a Sunday morning. But my brother William was soon brought back fainting by Alexander, with the loss of one of his finger-nails. . . .
"My time was much taken up with copying music and practising, besides attendance on my brother when polishing, since, by way of keeping him alive, I was constantly obliged to feed him by putting victuals in his mouth. This was once the case when, in order to finish a seven-foot mirror, he had not taken his hands off from it for sixteen hours together. Generally I was obliged to read to him, while he was at the turning-lathe or polishing mirrors, 'Don Quixote,' 'Arabian Nights Entertainment,' the novels of Sterne, Fielding, etc. ; serving tea and supper without interrupting the work, and sometimes lending a hand. I became in time as useful a member of the workshop as a boy might be to his master in the first year of his apprenticeship. But, as I was to take a part the next year in the oratorios, I had for a twelvemonth two lessons per week from Miss Fleming, the celebrated dancing-mistress, to drill me for a gentle-woman (God knows how she succeeded!). So we lived on, without interruption."

On her first public appearance as the leading treble singer in the oratorios, her brother gave her ten guineas for her dress, and on the occasion the proprietor of the theatre pronounced her an ornament to the stage. If she had chosen to persevere, her biographer says her reputation as a singer would have been secure, but, like a woman, she thought more of securing her brother's success than her own. She steadily declined to sing in public unless he was conductor. Besides regular Sunday services, she sang in concerts and oratorios at Bath and Bristol, all the while carrying on her housekeeping with one servant. In this way for ten years at Bath she went on "singing when she was told to sing, copying when she was told to copy, lending a hand in the workshop," and sympathizing with all the intensity of her nature in the course of events, which ended by her brother becoming "the king's astronomer." She sang with him for the last time at Bath, on Whitsunday, 1782.

The following extract narrates the course of events that led to her becoming her brother's constant assistant in his astronomical work:

"My brother, applied himself to perfect his mirrors, erecting in his garden a stand for his twenty-foot telescope. Many trials were necessary before the required motions for such an unwieldy machine could be contrived. Many attempts were made by way of experiment against a mirror, before an intended thirty-foot telescope could be completed, for which, between-whiles (not interrupting the observations with seven, ten, and twenty foot, and writing papers for both the Royal and Bath Philosophical Societies[2]), gauges, shapes, weights, etc., of the mirror were calculated and trials of the composition of the metal were made. In short, I saw nothing else and heard nothing else talked of but about these things when my brothers were together. Alexander was always very alert, assisting when any thing new was going forward, but he wanted perseverance, and never liked to confine himself at home for many hours together. And so it happened that my brother William was obliged to make trial of my abilities in copying for him catalogues, tables, etc., and sometimes whole papers which were lent him for perusal. I was thus kept employed when my brother was at the telescope at night. When I found that a hand was sometimes wanted, when any particular measures were to be made with the lamp, micrometer, etc., or a fire to be kept up, or a dish of coffee necessary during a long night's watching, I undertook with pleasure what others might have thought a hardship."

Although the sister's references to the labors and discoveries of her brother are full of interest, we have no space for them here. Suffice it that, after the discovery of "the Georgium Sidus in 1781, the name of William Herschel became famous, and he was soon released from the necessity of giving any of his time to music. He was sent for to come with his seven-foot telescope to the king, and the result was that he was chosen royal astronomer, at a salary of 200 a year." One or two extracts, from the letters written by William Herschel to his sister during this preliminary visit to London, will give some idea of the intimate relation she held in his life. He writes on May 25th:

" . . . . Yesterday I dined with Colonel Walsh, who inquired after you. There were present Mr. Aubert and Dr. Maskelyne. Dr. Maskelyne, in public, declared his obligation to me for having introduced to them the high powers, for Mr. Aubert has so much succeeded with them that he says he looks down upon 200, 300, or 400, with contempt, and immediately begins with 800. He has used 2,500 very completely, and seen my five double stars with them. All my papers are printing, with the postscript and all, and are allowed to be very valuable. You see, Lina, I tell you all these things. You know vanity is not my foible, therefore I need not fear your censure. Farewell.
"I am your affectionate brother,William Herschel."

And again, June 3d, he writes:

"Dear Lina: I pass my time between Greenwich and London agreeably enough, but am rather at a loss for work that I like. Company is not always pleasing, and I would much rather be polishing a speculum. . . . I am introduced to the best company. To-morrow I dine at Lord Palmerston's, next day with Sir Joseph Banks, etc., etc. Among opticians and astronomers nothing now is talked of but what they call my great discoveries. Alas! this shows how far they are behind, when such trifles as I have seen and done are called great. Let me but get at it again! I will make such telescopes and see such things—that is, I will endeavor to do so."

The letter ends abruptly.

Such, in brief, was the intellectual and moral preparation of Miss Herschel for the life of an astronomer. An account of her experiences in this field will be given in our next number.

  1. She means her brother's ruffles. In those days lace was worn by gentlemen, and she elsewhere speaks of knitting ruffles for her brother.
  2. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society December 6, 1871.