Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/May 1876/Caroline Lucretia Herschel II

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599172Popular Science Monthly Volume 9 May 1876 — Caroline Lucretia Herschel II1876Eliza Ann Youmans




WHATEVER may be thought of the intellectual differences between men and women, the broad mental contrast between Caroline Herschel and her brother Sir William Herschel is undeniable. Intellectual activity and a love of knowledge for its own sake influenced his boyhood, characterized his manhood, and dominated his whole life. He became an eminent astronomer because his passion for physical inquiry, directed toward the constitution of the universe, mastered every other sentiment of his nature. But the mind of Caroline Herschel was of another mould. She learned various things, from a desire to please her friends and to earn her living; but there is no evidence that she ever studied anything from a love of knowledge. Her whole life was inspired by purely personal feelings. In a former article we saw how submissively she delved for the family throughout her youth, and left them full of concern about their daily comforts. It was an all-absorbing love for her brother which led her to study astronomy, and at his death her devotion to science ended. Some people, perhaps, will admire her less on this account; yet, while it diminishes her claims as a philosopher, it certainly increases her claims as a woman. The tendency of women to act from intense personal motives is a fact of vital moment to the community, because the very existence of the family depends upon it; and it is difficult to imagine any future phase of society, of which the family is a factor, where engrossing personal fueling will not continue to be a supreme womanly trait.

Resuming our history, we find that on the 1st of August, 1782, the Herschels with their instruments and furniture arrived at Datchet, and took possession of a large and neglected old house, with garden and grounds overgrown with weeds. Having no female servant, Miss Herschel was shown the shops by the gardener's wife, and her practical sense was at once shocked at the prices of everything, from coal to butcher's meat. But her brother was not disturbed by such considerations. He had stables where he could grind mirrors, a roomy laundry for a library, a large grass-plot for his instruments, and "he gayly assured her that they could live on eggs and bacon, which would cost nothing to speak of, now they were really in the country." After a couple of months the younger brother went back to Bath to resume his occupations in music; and it was this separation which awakened Caroline to a consciousness of what she was doing in giving up the prospect of becoming independent in the musical profession. But she reconciled herself to the situation by the thought that her brother William could not do without her, and that she had not spirit enough to throw herself upon the public without his protection. Soon after Alexander's departure, William had to go away for a week or ten days, and she was left alone. She thus describes her feelings in entering upon her new work:

"In my brother's absence from home, I was, of course, left solely to amuse myself with my own thoughts, which were anything but cheerful. I found I was to be trained for an assistant astronomer, and, by way of encouragement, a telescope adapted for 'sweeping,' consisting of a tube with two glasses, such as are commonly used in a 'finder,' was given me. I was 'to sweep for comets,' and I see by my journal that I began August 22, 1782, to write down and describe all remarkable appearances I saw in my 'sweeps,' which were horizontal. But it was not till the last two months of the same year that I felt the least encouragement to spend the starlight nights on a grass-plot covered with dew or hoar-frost, without a human being near enough to be within call; for I knew too little of the real heavens to be able to point out every object so as to find it again without losing too much time by consulting the atlas. But all these troubles were removed when I knew my brother to be at no great distance, making observations with his various instruments on double stars, planets, etc., and I could have his assistance immediately when I found a nebula, or cluster of stars, of which I intended to give a catalogue; .but, at the end of 1783, I had only marked fourteen, when my sweeping was interrupted by being employed to write down my brother's observations with the large twenty-foot. I had, however, the comfort to see that my brother was satisfied with my endeavors to assist him when he wanted another person, either to run to the clocks, write down a memorandum, fetch and carry instruments, or measure the ground with poles, etc., of which something of the kind every moment would occur."

The summer months of 1783 were spent in getting the large twenty-foot ready for the next winter. After some account of her brother's many and incessant occupations, she says he also threw away some trouble in the effort to teach her to remeasure double stars with the micrometers used in former measurements, and a small twenty-foot was given her for the purpose. She had also to use a borrowed transit-instrument to find their places, but after many failures it was seen that the instrument was as much in fault as herself. She thus continues her account of her experiences:

"July 8th (1783) I began to use the Newtonian small sweeper, but it could hardly be expected that I should meet with any comets in the part of the heavens where I swept, for I generally chose my situation by the side of my brother's instrument, that I might be ready to run to the clock or write down memorandums. In the beginning of December I became entirely attached to the writing-desk, and had seldom an opportunity after that time of using my newly-acquired instrument. My brother began his series of sweeps when the instrument was yet in a very unfinished state, and my feelings were not very comfortable when every moment I was alarmed by a crack or fall, knowing him to be elevated fifteen feet or more on a temporary cross-beam instead of a safe gallery. The ladders had not even their braces at the bottom; and one night, in a very high wind, he had hardly touched the ground before the whole apparatus came down. Some laboring-men were called up to help in extricating the mirror, which was fortunately uninjured; but much work was cut out for carpenters next day. That my fears of danger and accidents were not wholly imaginary, I had an unlucky proof on the night of the 31st of December. The evening had been cloudy, but about ten o'clock a few stars became visible, and in the greatest hurry all was got ready for observing. My brother, at the front of the telescope, directed me to make some alteration in the lateral motion, which was done by machinery, on which the point of support of the tube and mirror rested. At each end of the machine or trough was an iron hook, such as butchers use for hanging their joints upon, and, having to run in the dark on ground covered a foot deep with melting snow, I fell on one of these hooks, which entered my right leg above the knee. My brother's call, 'Make haste!' I could only answer by a pitiful cry, 'I am hooked!' He and the workmen were instantly with me, but they could not lift me without leaving nearly two ounces of my flesh behind. The workman's wife was called, but was afraid to do anything, and I was obliged to be my own surgeon by applying aquabusade and tying a kerchief about it for some days, till Dr. Lind, hearing of my accident, brought me ointment and lint, and told me how to use them. At the end of six weeks I began to have some fears about my poor limb, and asked again for Dr. Lind's opinion; he said if a soldier had met with such a hurt he would have been entitled to six weeks' nursing in a hospital. I had, however, the comfort to know that my brother was no loser through this accident, for the remainder of the night was cloudy, and several nights afterward afforded only a few short intervals favorable for sweeping, and, until the 16th of January, there was no necessity for my exposing myself for a whole night to the severity of the season. I could give a pretty long list of accidents which were near proving fatal to my brother as well as myself."

Her account of the years 1784 and 1785 is varied by reminiscences of the trouble her brother had in trying to live and pursue his astronomical observations on 200 a year. The book contains many incidental allusions to royal patronage that are not flattering; but, notwithstanding the silence of her diary upon so many matters of real consequence, she always chronicles the attentions bestowed upon her brother and herself by kings and nobles. Most of her brother's time was spent in making and selling telescopes for other observers, instead of finishing a thirty or forty foot instrument for his own use, upon which his heart was set. The king ordered many seven-foot and four ten-foot telescopes, one of which was to be sent as a present to the observatory at Göttingen. Meantime, through the influence of Sir Joseph Banks, £2,000 had been granted to Herschel, to enable him to make an instrument for himself. After living in Datchet four years, they moved to Slough, in April, 1786, and it was here that Herschel put up his famous telescope, and fixed his residence for the rest of his life.

Sir William Herschel's Forty-foot Telescope at Slough.

In July of this year he went to Germany to deliver the ten-foot telescope from the king, leaving Caroline in charge of matters at home. The stand for the forty-foot telescope was finished, and he left a smith at work on the tube. The mirror was also pretty far advanced. During this absence of her brother Miss Herschel discovered her first comet. Her diary and letters belonging to this period are very interesting Her brother left on the 3d, and on that day she cleaned and put the polishing-room in order, made the gardener clear the work-yard, and mend the fences. "5th.—Spent the morning in needle-work . . . ." "6th.—Put the philosophical letters in order, and the collection of each year in a separate corner . . . ." "12th.—Put paper in press for a register . . . ." "18th.—Spent the day in ruling paper for the register, except that at breakfast I cut out ruffles for shirts . . . ." "29th.—I paid the smith . . . ."

It was on the 1st of August that she first saw the comet. We give her diary at this time in full:

"August 1st.—I have counted 100 nebulae to-day; and this evening I saw an object which, I believe, to-morrow night will prove to be a comet.

"2d.—To-day I calculated 150 nebulæ. I fear it will not be clear to-night. It has been raining throughout the whole day, but seems now to clear up a little. One o'clock.—The object of last night is a comet.

"3d.—I did not go to rest till I had wrote to Dr. Blagden and Mr. Aubert, to announce the comet."

In the letter to Dr. Blagden she says:

"The employment of writing down the observations when my brother uses the twenty-foot reflector does not often allow me time to look at the heavens; but, as he is now on a visit to Germany, I have taken the opportunity to sweep in the neighborhood of the sun in search of comets; and last night, the 1st of August, about ten o'clock, I found an object very much resembling in color and brightness the 27 nebulæ of the Connoissance des Temps, with the difference, however, of being round. I suspected it to be a comet; but, a haziness coming on, it was not possible to satisfy myself as to its motion till this evening."

After describing the object and its position, she concludes:

"You will do me the favor of communicating these observations to my brother's astronomical friends."

Dr. Blagden replied on August 5th that no one but herself had yet seen the comet, but that he had spread the news of her discovery in England, France, and Germany. August 7th Mr. Aubert wrote to her that he did not find the comet till the 5th on account of cloudy weather. He says:

"I wish you joy most sincerely on the discovery. I am more pleased than you can well conceive that you have made it, and I think I see your wonderfully clever and wonderfully amiable brother, upon the news of it, shed a tear of joy. You have immortalized your name, and you deserve such a reward for your assiduity in the business of astronomy, and for your love for so celebrated and deserving a brother."

We give place to the friendly expressions of these gentlemen, and others that will follow, to show that Miss Herschel was not hindered in her scientific career by the jealousy or antagonism of male rivals, of which ambitious women complain so much in these degenerate days. She continues the diary of her labors:

"4th.—I wrote to Hanover; booked my observations; made accounts. The night is cloudy.

"5th.—Calculated nebulas all day. The night was tolerably fine, and I saw the comet.

"6th.—I booked my observations of last night. Received a letter from Dr. Blagden in the morning, and in the evening Sir J. Banks, Lord Palmerston, and Dr. Blagden, came and saw the comet. The evening was very fine.

"7th and 8th.—Booked my observations. On the 8th the evening was cloudy.

"9th.—I calculated 100 nebulæ.

"10th.—Calculated 100 nebulæ. The smith borrowed a guinea.

"11th.—I completed, to-day, the catalogue of the first thousand.

"13th.—Prof. Kratzensteine, from Copenhagen, was here to-day. In the evening I saw the comet, and swept.

"14th.—I calculated 140 nebulæ to-day, which brought me up to the last-discovered nebulæ, and therefore the work is finished."

Miss Herschel says it is impossible for her to give an account of all that passed around her in the following two years, for they were spent in a perfect chaos of business.

But in 1788, after he was fifty years old, her brother married a wealthy widow, of about the same age as Miss Herschel. It is said by the editor that the wife was very amiable and gentle, and that the jointure she brought enabled her husband to pursue his scientific career without anxiety about expenses. But this was evidently not so. We must infer from the statements of Miss Herschel that this wealth, like royal patronage, was not applied to relieve Sir William from drudgery; for, to the end of her brother's life, she complains that, instead of pursuing original investigations, he had to spend an enormous amount of time and labor making and selling telescopes; and that the fatigue and exhaustion from polishing mirrors told seriously upon his health. In 1805, more than a dozen years after his marriage, we hear of his finishing an instrument for the King of Spain, and at about the same time another for the Prince of Canino. She further says that he was miserably stinted for room for his instruments, and continually bemoans the embarrassments and hinderances which defeated his plans of study, and asserts that, during the last years of his life, his spirits were depressed and his temper soured by these circumstances.

In her diary, all that Miss Herschel says of her brother's marriage is this:

"It may easily be supposed that I must have been fully employed (besides minding the heavens) to prepare everything as well as I could against the time I was to give up the place of housekeeper on the 8th of May."

When, in after-years, she was preparing the materials for her biography, which were to be sent to Sir John Herschel, the son of this new sister-in-law, she destroyed all her diary and records for the ten years immediately succeeding her brothers marriage. Her biographer and relative alludes to her experiences at this time in the following language:

"With saddened heart but unflagging determination she continued to work for her brother, but saw his domestic happiness pass into other keeping. It is not to be supposed, however, that a nature so strong and a heart so affectionate should accept the new state of things without much and bitter suffering. To resign the supreme place by her brother's side, which she had filled for sixteen years with such hearty devotion, could not he otherwise than painful in any case; but how much more so in this, where equal devotion to the same pursuit must have made identity of interest and purpose as complete as it is rare! One who could both feel and express herself so strongly was not likely to fall into her new place without some outward expression of what it cost her—tradition confirms the assumption—and it is easy to understand how this long, significant silence is due to the light of later wisdom and calmer judgment which counseled the destruction of all record of what was likely to be painful to survivors."

In reference to Herschel's marriage, a writer in the London Examiner says, "It is impossible to regret or censure the step which gave existence to his yet more remarkable son;" but this is a singular and tardy justification. In marrying, he did what it was highly probable he would do; and, remembering this, he should not have allowed his sister to live so entirely for him. It is not to be supposed, however, that he foresaw the unpleasant consequences that fell upon her. When the temptation to marry came, he no doubt stupidly fancied that in enriching his own life by this new relation he should add to her happiness by bringing her a sister; but, if he had studied the ways of men and women as he studied the heavens, he might have saved himself from such a delusion.

The work she did during the next ten years affords abundant evidence of the heroism with which Miss Herschel met her fate. Besides discovering seven more comets, she prepared "A Catalogue of 860 Stars observed by Flamsteed, but not included in the British Catalogue," and "A General Index of Reference to Every Observation of Every Star in the above-mentioned British Catalogue," both of which works were published by the Royal Society in 1798. She also spent much time upon another work which was not finished for many years. It was "The Reduction and Arrangement in the Form of a Catalogue, in Zones, of all the Star-Clusters and Nebulæ observed by Sir W. Herschel in his Sweeps." For this she received the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828, and it was pronounced by Sir David Brewster "a work of immense labor."

Some account of her discoveries was found in a packet wrapped in coarse paper, and labeled "This is what I call the bills and receipts of my comets." The separate parcels of this bundle were marked "First Comet," "Second Comet," etc. She announced the discovery of her second comet to Dr. Maskelyne, the royal astronomer, in the following letter, with a postscript by her brother:

"Dear Sir: Last night, December 21st, at 7h 45', I discovered a comet, a little more than one degree south, preceding β Lyræ. This morning, between five and six, I saw it again, when it appeared to have moved about a quarter of a degree toward 6 of the same constellation. I beg the favor of you to take it under your protection.

"Mrs. Herschel and my brothers join with me in compliments to Mrs. Maskelyne and yourself, and I have the honor to remain,

"Dear sir, your most obliged, humble servant,
"Caroline Herschel.
"Slough, December 22, 1788."

"P.S.—The comet precedes β Lyræ 7' 5" in time, and is in the parallel of the small star (β being double). See fifth class, third star, of my catalogue.

"William Herschel."

Her brother announced her discovery to Sir J. Banks and Sir H. Englefield, and from these gentlemen she received the most cordial congratulations. Two years later, on January 7, 1790, the third comet was discovered, and on the 17th of April, the same year, when her brother was absent, she announced her fourth comet to Sir Joseph Banks in the following words:

"April 19th.

"Sir: I am very unwilling to trouble you with incomplete observations, and for that reason did not acquaint you yesterday with the discovery of a comet. I wrote an account of it to Dr. Maskelyne and Mr. Aubert, in hopes that one of them would furnish me with the means of pointing it out in a proper manner. But as several days may pass before my letters are answered, or my brother returns, I would not be thought neglectful, and if you think the following description sufficient, and that more of my brother's astronomical friends should be made acquainted with it, I should be very happy if you would be so kind as to do it for the sake of astronomy."

Then follows an account of the comet. The letter, written on the day previous, to Mr. Aubert, we give entire:

"Slough, April 18, 1790.

"Dear Sir: I am almost ashamed to write you, because I never think of doing so but when I am in distress. I found, last night, at 16h 24', sidereal time, a comet, and do not know what to do with it, for my new sweeper is not half finished; and, besides, I broke the handle of the perpendicular motion in my brother's absence (who is on a little tour in Yorkshire). He furnished me to that instrument a rhomboides, but the wires are too thin, and I have no means for illuminating them. All my hopes were that I should find nothing to make me feel the want of these things in his absence; but, as it happens, here is an object in a place where there is no nebula, or anything which could look like a comet, and I would be much obliged to you, sir, if you would look at the place where the annexed eye-draft will direct you to. My brother has swept that part of the heavens, and has many nebulæ there, but none which I must expect to see with my instrument. I will not write to Sir J. Banks or Dr. Maskelyne,

or anybody, till you, sir, have seen it; but if you could, without much trouble, give my best respects, and that part of this letter which points out the place of the comet, to Mr. Wollaston, you would make me very happy.

"I am, dear sir, etc., etc.,

C. H."

From all these gentlemen her labors and discoveries received the most cordial recognition. In his reply, Sir J. Banks said: "I shall take care to make our astronomical friends acquainted with the obligations they are under to your diligence." Mr. Aubert closes his letter with the assurance of the pleasure he felt at her success, and with the offer of any instrument she might wish to use; while Dr. Maskelyne addressed her as his "worthy sister in astronomy."

The fifth comet was discovered December 15, 1791, and all that she says about it is, "My brother wrote an account of it to Sir J. Banks, Dr. Maskelyne, and several other gentlemen." The sixth, found October 8th, is briefly recognized; and the seventh, discovered November 7, 1795, is known as Encke's comet, because he determined its periodicity. It was discovered by four different observers before its identity was recognized. Miss Herschel was its second discoverer in order of time. Her eighth and last comet was discovered August 8. 1797.

We learn from her diary that in October of this year her home with her brother at Slough was broken up, and she went to live in solitude in lodgings, and this mode of life she continued for twenty-five years, till her brother's death, when she left England to join her relations in Hanover. Why she left her brother's house she does not explain, nor is it necessary. In referring to her departure she only says: "My telescopes on the roof, to which I was to have occasional access, as also the room with the sweeping and observing apparatus, remained in their former order, where I most days spent some hours in preparing work to go on with at my lodgings." In a letter to Dr. Maskelyne, written in September, 1798, she says that, during the past year, she has not thought herself "well or in spirits enough to venture from home." She spent her first lonely winter in getting ready for the press some of her own astronomical work.

The account of her life from 1798 until her brother's death, in 1822, occupies about fifty pages of the volume, and consists mostly of extracts from her diary. It is not a record of discoveries or personal triumphs, but of unceasing labor for her brother, knowing no respite in sickness or in health, by night or by day, in winter or in summer, amid hardships and discouragements that never daunted her affectionate nature. During her first year in lodgings, she complains of being harassed by the loss of time in going backward and forward, and by not having immediate access to books and papers; and these troubles, with varying features, pursued her to the end of her brother's life. The first three or four years she changed her lodgings often, but in 1801 she settled in Upton, where she remained till 1810, at which time she took possession of a cottage in Slough, belonging to her brother, and, although mention is made in her diary of moving again in 1814, yet she continued to live in Slough.

Notwithstanding all her prudence about paining relations, the multiplied repetition in her diary of such entries as the following is painfully suggestive:

"March 5th.—Went to make some stay with my brothers at Slough, Mrs. Herschel being in town.

"27th.—All returned, and I went with my work to Upton again.

"September 24th.—Went to work with my brother at Slough.

"October 1st.—Mrs. Herschel and niece returned. I went back to Upton.

"August 1st.—I left Upton for Slough. My brother went with Mrs. Herschel and Miss Baldwin on an excursion. I distracted my thoughts by undertaking an amazing deal of work.

"September 8th.—My brother and family returned, and I went with my works to Upton.

"May 2d.—I left Upton for Slough to work with my brother; Mrs. Herschel being in town till June 18th.

"November 3d.—I came home to Upton (Mrs. Herschel returned from Brighton), but went most days to assist my brother in the polishing-room or library, and, from the 10th of December to the 22d, was entirely at Slough, Mrs. Herschel being away.

"January.—I had a cough all the month; the communication between Slough and Upton very troublesome to me.

"March 9th.—Went to Slough to work with my brother; his family from home.

"May 11th.—Went to be with my brother; Mrs. Herschel went to town for a month.

"June 12th.—Mrs. Herschel returned from town, and I went home."

It is pleasant to find, however, that the asperities of this period of her life were so much softened by time and distance that in 1829, when living in Hanover, she was able to write to her sister-in-law, confidentially as to "a dear sister, for as such I now know you."

The diary closes in 1822, with an account of her brother's death, and her departure from England. We quote the following characteristic passage relating to this period. She had come as usual to spend the morning with her brother:

"August 15th.—I hastened to the spot where I was wont to find him, with the newspaper which I was to read to him. But instead I found Mrs. Morson, Miss Baldwin, and Mr. Bulman, from Leeds, the grandson of my brother's earliest acquaintance in this country. I was informed my brother had been obliged to return to his room, whither I flew immediately. Lady Herschel and the housekeeper were with him, administering everything which could be thought of for supporting him. I found him much irritated at not being able to grant Mr. Bulman's request for some token of remembrance for his father. As soon as he saw me, I was sent to the library to fetch one of his last papers, and a plate of the forty-foot telescope. But, for the universe, I could not have looked twice at what I had snatched from the shelf, and when he faintly asked if the

breaking up of the milky-way was in it, I said 'Yes,' and he looked content. I cannot help remembering this circumstance: it was the last time I was sent to the library on such an occasion."

Her brother William died on the 25th of August, and in the following October she settled in Hanover with her brother Dietrich.

When her brother died she was herself in feeble health, and expected soon to follow him to the grave, and it suited her feelings to go back to Hanover to die. Besides, she says:

"My whole life almost has passed away in the delusion that, next to my eldest brother, none but Dietrich was capable of giving me advice where to leave my few relics, consisting of a few books and my sweeper. And for the last twenty years I kept to the resolution of never opening my lips to my dear brother William about worldly or serious concerns, let me be ever so much at a loss for knowing right from wrong. And so it happened that, at a time when I was stupefied by grief at seeing the death of my dear brother, I gave myself with all I was worth (£500 of bank-stock) to my brother Dietrich and his family, and, from that time till the death of Dietrich, I found great difficulty to remain mistress of my own actions and opinions. In respect to the latter we never could agree."

Her brother William, however, left her a legacy of 100 a year, and during the rest of her life her chief study was how to spend this sum without making herself ridiculous.

As was to be expected, after fifty years' absence she found Hanover changed in everything, and little to her taste, and she was also grievously disappointed in the generation of relatives with whom she lived, and of whom she says:

"They have never been of the least use to me, and for all the good I have lavished on them they never came to look after me, but when they had some design upon me."

In speaking of her return to Hanover, her biographer writes thus:

"Who can think of her at the age of seventy-two, heart-broken and desolate, going back to the home of her youth to find consolation without a pang of pity? She little guessed how much her habits had changed in the different world where she had lived for fifty years. She had the bitterness to find herself alone with her great sorrow."

We have no space to give to this part of her life, although it occupies more than half of the volume, to which we must refer our readers. It is made up chiefly of her correspondence, and her letters, from their unconscious self-portraiture, are quite as interesting as her "Diary" or her "Recollections." It is full of interest also on account of the details it gives concerning the life of Sir William Herschel, of whom no reliable biography has yet appeared.

She died peacefully in 1848, and her funeral was held in the same garrison-church where she was christened and confirmed. According to a request made to her favorite niece, a lock of her brother's hair, and an almost obliterated almanac, that had been used by her father, were placed with her in her coffin. The same niece, in a letter written at this time to her cousin, Sir John Herschel, says:

"I felt almost a sense of joyful relief at the death of my aunt, in the thought that now the unquiet heart was at rest. All that she had of love to give was concentrated on her beloved brother. . . . She looked upon progress in science as so much detraction from her brother's fame, and even your investigations would have become a source of estrangement had she been with you."