William Herschel and his work/Chapter 13

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search





Of those who helped Herschel onward to fame, all were dead but his sister Caroline. Dr. Watson, and Sir Joseph Banks, the King and Herschel himself were gone. A pleasant and useful fellowship of great minds, great in respect of rank or great in intellect and heart, had come to its close. It had lasted for about forty years, more or less; and the continuance of it so long without break or jar reflects the highest credit on all four. A union of hearts and minds so unusual is worthy of a passing notice.

Sir William Watson did not belong to the Triumvirate as it was called, but of him Herschel always spoke with the deepest respect. Unworthy and unscrupulous men, when they think themselves able to climb without further help, have no repugnance to kick away the ladder by which they first mounted into fame. Herschel did not belong to that contemptible class. His was a noble nature, and as generous as it was noble. Watson offered to assist him with money, but he preferred to meet the cost of experiment or manufacture out of his own labours. It was a noble resolve. But almost from the first he confesses obligation, and finds a certificate for himself by linking his name with Watson's. The man with whose fame Europe was ringing, honoured himself by this modesty of bearing and true manhood. "Grieved to see the sad change in Sir William's health and spirits," Caroline Herschel wrote of their early friend when she met him and his wife at her brother's house on May 10, 1817, "I felt my only friend and adviser was lost to me."

The Triumvirate was composed of the King, Sir Joseph Banks, and Sir William Herschel.

The King was dead. Whatever may be said or thought of him in other respects, it should always be borne in mind that, after the difficulties incident to Herschel's introduction at Court had been overcome, he proved himself a munificent patron of science and an enlightened friend of the great observer. Accustomed himself to live in the centre of a crowd in his palace, on the terrace at Windsor, and in his public appearances, it would not occur to him that similar publicity could be otherwise than agreeable to his astronomer. When he bargained for Herschel's time being devoted, among other things, to receiving visits from Royal or titled nonentities, and showing them his instruments, he did not consider that it was a drain on the astronomer's time and strength, which ought not to have been asked from him. Caroline Herschel, who saw the mischief wrought by this waste of energy, the irritation caused, and the danger run from standing for hours on wet grass to play the showman to a crowd of thoughtless nobodies, complains bitterly, and not without reason, of the arrangements thus made. But the King cannot fairly be held blameworthy. Miss Burney suffered in nearly the same way. Her attendance on Queen Charlotte was a burden on body and soul, similar to the claims made on Herschel by visitors from Windsor Castle. Macaulay reprobates, and justly reprobates, the thoughtless cruelty, to which it exposed a woman who could have earned by her pen ten times the income she received from dancing attendance on a queen. But the Queen was not altogether in fault in her case; nor was the King in Herschel's. It was Court etiquette, cruel and thoughtless unquestionably;—"a slavery of five years, of five years taken from the best part of her life, and wasted in menial drudgery or in recreations duller than even menial drudgery, under galling restraints, and amidst unfriendly or uninteresting companions."[1] It was a huge mistake to cramp the genius of the novelist or the astronomer by the formalities and triflings of a Court. It did little or no harm to the latter; it did irreparable wrong to the former. People who have lived in a crowd all their lives, to whom indeed it is the breath of life, cannot understand that it may be poison to genius.

Sir Joseph Banks also was dead. A year after his death a German visitor to this country gives a pleasing picture of an uncommon triumvirate of rank and science. "In England," he says, "people have long been accustomed to associate with their recollections of their late revered Monarch, the names of these two veterans in science, Herschel and Banks, both not only of nearly the same age with the King, but also distinguished by him with peculiar favour, and frequent personal intercourse. All the three members of this singular triumvirate were still living when I visited England; now the astronomer is the only survivor." "With good reason did Cuvier, in the panegyric he pronounced on Sir Joseph before the French Academy, assert that whenever a worthy disciple, or man of letters, fell in his way, he opened to them his treasures of nature with the greatest liberality." Herschel experienced from him the full benefit of this generous, ungrudging nature.

Following the example of his predecessor in office as President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph, possessed of an ample fortune which enabled him to indulge the generosity of his heart, gave receptions to learned men and travellers on Sunday evenings. The stranger thus describes what he then saw. "I found the veteran in the middle library, in full dress, with the broad ribbon of the order of the Bath over his shoulder and breast;[2] just as he used to appear when presiding at the meetings of the Royal Society. Being infirm in the feet. Sir Joseph sat in an arm-chair on rollers, his left arm resting on a table near him.[3] He was, it is true, scarcely more than the outward shell of a mind formerly so animated; both his apprehension and recollection being weak; but his features bore a most engaging expression. Every stranger was at least announced to him, and if he had anything to shew or communicate, he immediately laid it before him."

This generous, noble-hearted man did much to soften the horrors of war in the long and bloody strife between this country and France. "During the voyage of La Perouse, the French circumnavigator, he induced the British Government to allow him to sail in all seas unmolested. He himself endeavoured, by means of his extensive correspondence, to procure some certain accounts as to the disastrous result. When a considerable collection of natural curiosities, which Labillardière had sent to France during his voyage, fell into the hands of English privateers, and became the property of the English Government, Sir Joseph generously exerted his influence again, and the result was that the cases were immediately sent to France, without having even been opened."[4]

A king, a landed gentleman of great wealth, and a musician from Bath formed the triumvirate in science,[5] of which our countrymen used to speak, and were deservedly proud for twenty years before and for twenty after the beginning of the present century. All three were dead, but they were survived for a quarter of a century or more by a lady, who made herself famous in science and wore her well-won honours with the modesty of true deserving—Caroline Lucretia Herschel, the devoted sister and unwearied assistant of her brother William. With touching pathos she writes to Francis Baily in 1835, "It encourages me now to address you as an old friend, and I might almost say my only one, for death has not spared me one of those valuable men of the last century in whose society I had an opportunity of spending many happy hours, when they came to pass an astronomical night at Bath, Datchet, Clay Hall, and Slough." She remained, to the end of her long life, the same loving worshipper of departed greatness that she had been during her brother's lifetime, and the same outspoken critic of men and women whom she happened to meet. Thirteen years after she left England, she wrote: "Within the last two months I have been obliged to exert myself once more to answer two letters, one to Mr. De Morgan, the Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, the other to Mr. Baily (who, I suppose, is President), for they have been pleased to choose me, along with Mrs. Somerville, to be a member (God knows what for) of their Society." Promotion! she says, they call it in Hanover, and laughingly talks of "our Society, of which I am now a fellow!" She was then eighty-five years of age. Apparently she was of the same mind as Hannah More, who, when she found her name proposed as an honorary member of the Royal Society of Literature, wrote a strong remonstrance, declining the distinction, chiefly "because I consider the circumstance of sex alone a disqualification."[6]

In November 1838 she was also elected an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin: and besides she received in 1846, from the King of Prussia, a gold medal for science. Well earned though both of these honours were, she wrote with the modesty of true science, when she heard of the former, "I cannot help crying out aloud to myself, every now and then, 'What is That for ?' . . . I think almost it is mocking me to look upon me as a Member of an Academy: I that have lived these eighteen years (against my will and intention) without finding as much as a single comet." At the same time she could flare up with true feminine fire when it seemed to her that her dignity, as a woman of science, was in any degree infringed. "This puts me in mind of Olbers saying somewhere," she wrote, "I had discovered five comets. Who wanted him to give the number of my comets when he knew them no better? As far as I recollect, Dr. Maskelyne has observed them all, and his observations on them are, I daresay, all printed in the volumes of the Greenwich observations—at least of some he has shown me the proof sheets. I never called a comet mine till several post days were passed without any account of them coming to hand." She was then ninety-two years of age, and Olbers had died more than two years before.

Caroline Herschel maintained to the close of her days the same habits of thrift, the same dread of not getting the two ends to meet, and the same foresight in providing means for ends that characterised her early life. She enjoyed a pension of £50 a year from the Civil List—a small allowance for so deserving a recipient. She had also an annuity of £100 settled on her by her brother's will—a small return, we should say, for the invaluable services she rendered, but a sum which she probably regarded as unnecessarily taken out of her "dear nephew's" pocket. "Let the time come when it may please God," she writes in her eighty-fifth year, "I leave cash enough behind to clear me from all and any obligations to all who here do know me. Even the expenses of a respectable funeral lie ready to enable my friend Mrs. Beckedorff, and one of my nieces to fulfil my directions.

"I hope you will pardon my troubling you with such doleful subjects, but I wish to show you that my income is by one third more than I have the power to spend, for by a twelve years' trial I find that I cannot get rid of more than 600 thl. = £100 per year, without making myself ridiculous."

Her thoughts were not set on money, or on the respect which money, honourably earned, usually brings. The memory of the "best and dearest of brothers" clung to her with an all-absorbing power. It was her first and her last love. "You have made me completely happy for some time," she wrote from Hanover to his son, "with the account you sent me of the double stars; but it vexes me more and more that in this abominable city there is no one who is capable of partaking in the joy I feel on this revival of your father's name. His observations on double stars were from first to last the most interesting subject; he never lost sight of it in his papers on the construction of the heavens, etc. And I cannot help lamenting that he could not take to his grave with him the satisfaction I feel at present in seeing his son doing him so ample justice by endeavouring to perfect what he could only begin." When Sir John Herschel delivered the address that preceded the handing over to Bessel of the Astronomical Society's Gold Medal for determining, by means of the heliometer, the distance from us of the double star 61 Cygni, she was heart and soul with him when he said, "Gentlemen, I congratulate you and myself that we have lived to see the great and hitherto impassable barrier to our excursions into the sidereal universe—that barrier against which we have chafed so long and so vainly—almost simultaneously overleaped at three different points"[7] He described this discovery of the distance of a fixed star as the greatest and most glorious triumph which practical astronomy has perhaps ever witnessed, and the three who shared the triumph between them were Bessel with 61 Cygni, Henderson[8] of Edinburgh with α Centauri, and Struve of Dorpat with α Lyræ. Bessel's object-glass, that he got cut in two to form a heliometer. Sir John saw at Munich before it was mounted, considered it invaluable, and believed that genius alone could have dared to divide it in two for the purposes of science. Caroline Herschel's delight, in her retirement, at the success of these three astronomers in following her baffled brother's lead may be imagined. To know that the parallax of a fixed star had been found by Bessel to be the 31/100 of a second! To know that it was a double star! To know, besides, that the smaller of the two companion stars revolved round the larger in an orbit fifty times the diameter of the earth's orbit round the sun, or two and a half times that of Uranus! and to know also that the pair of stars were 670,000 times as distant from us as is the sun! To her these discoveries were a delightful commentary on her brother's words—" In this case, millions of years are perhaps but moments." The "little old woman" in the "abominable city" of Hanover, unable to endure "happy England," where her dead hero was buried, and where his son, her nephew, was a foremost name in the world of science, revelled in the news that were brought her of hopes at last fulfilled, and thought longingly of the seven-feet reflector, with which she used to sweep the heavens, as it stood in the room beside her, but which she should never use again.

"How I envy you having seen Bessel," she wrote to her nephew in 1842—"the man who found us the parallax of 61 Cygni."[9]

"The seven-foot shall stand in my room, and be my monument," she wrote to her nephew in 1823; what to do with it was a puzzle to her. Her sweeper she thought of leaving to her girlhood's friend's daughter. Miss Beckedorff, but in 1840 it was consigned to "the hands of the good, honest creature, Dr. Hausmann." "The five-foot Newtonian reflector," she wrote that same year,[10] "is in the hands of the Royal Astronomical Society, and will be preserved by it as the little telescope of Newton is by the Royal Society, long after I and all the little ones are dead and gone." It was a source of justifiable pride to her as she neared the end.

Faithful to the memory and greatness of her departed brother, she resented every attempt at an imperfect or unworthy presentation of his life and works. What she should have done herself, and she had better means than others of doing it truthfully and faithfully, she left to the ignorant or the conceited to attempt. She could only rail at their efforts, and wish they had left the work alone. It was not just to them or to him. The world wishes to know something of those whose greatness of mind or achievement has enriched humanity or extended its knowledge of nature. Herschel had done so in a pre-eminent degree. With good reason, then, the world said. Tell us about him; his faults, if he had any, we can forgive and forget; his virtues we can admire or follow. Caroline Herschel did not take this view of her duty. She left it to others to write what she could have written better, and to record what she knew at first hand, and they did not know at all or only as dull echoes of a resounding past. "The Germans are very busy about the fame of your dear father," she writes; "there does not pass a month but something appears in print, and Dr. Groskopf saw it stated that Professor Pfaff had translated all your dear father's papers from the Phil. Trans. into German, and which will be published in Dresden. I wish he had left it for some good astronomer to do the same." Evidently the acid of her temper had been called into action by Professor Pfaff. Her nephew describes him in reply as "a respectable mathematician, and I hope it is he who undertakes the work." "Johann Wilhelm Pfaff," she answers, "professor, in Erlangen, is the same who intends to translate your father's papers, but those only which he can get a copy of. The Philosophical Transactions, I am told, are not within his reach." The acid is a little sweetened; not much, and it is clear that Caroline Herschel at eighty-five does not differ in temper at least from the same lady at twenty-two. Alas! her inventory of books, pictures, etc., showed what she thought of the Professor's two-volume edition of her brother's collected works, "Abominable stuff! What is to be done with them? They are so prettily bound, I cannot take it in my heart to burn them." But she could lash with her tongue everybody who even praised her dead hero. "Now we talk of biographies," she wrote twelve years afterwards, "I have no less than nine of my poor brother, and heard of two more, one by Zach, which I shall try to get sight of. There is but one or two which are bordering on truth, the rest being stuff, not worth while to fret about. The best is accompanied with a miniature of Reberg's bad copy." "Bordering on truth! stuff!" Her description of her own racy letters is equally amusing: "I was in hopes you would have thrown away such incoherent stuff . . . and not to let it rise in judgment against my, perhaps, bad grammar, bad spelling, etc."

Even a small matter became great where his name was concerned. "The following hint is only to you as a dear sister," she writes to her brother's widow, "for as such I now know you:—All I am possessed of is looked upon as their own, when I am gone; the disposal of my brother's picture is even denied me—it hangs in Mrs. H.'s drawing-room, where a set of old women play cards under it on her club day." Summary also was her judgment of anyone who attempted to rival or surpass her brother: "The fellow is a fool." Great was her excitement on learning that her nephew was preparing to complete in the southern hemisphere the gauging of the heavens, which his father had begun, and for many a year carried on in the northern. That was allowable. It was a war trumpet blown within hearing of a war horse, that had served its last campaign. "Dr. Tias, who travelled through Hanover, called on me to-day," she writes to Lady Herschel. "He talked strangely about my nephew's intention of going to the Cape of Good Hope. Mr. Hausmann told me some weeks ago that the Times contained the same report, to which I replied, 'It is a lie! 'but what I heard from Dr. Tias to-day makes me almost believe it possible. Ja! if I was thirty or forty years younger, and could go too? In Gottes nahmen! But I will not think about it till you yourself tell me more of it, for I have enough to think of my cramps, blindness, sleepless nights, etc." She was a wonderful "little old woman." Pointed at on the street, honoured by the Palace, and saluted with profoundest respect at theatre or concert, she wrote, "Next to listening to the conversation of learned men, I like to hear about them, but I find myself, unfortunately, among beings who like nothing but smoking, big talk on politics, wars and such like things." Her indignation flamed up as fiercely when she was ninety years of age as it used to do when she was twenty, especially at anyone who took her for what she was not, weak of will or understanding. "Thank God, I have yet sense enough left to caution you against being imposed upon by a stupid being, who would make you believe I died under obligations to any of the family. I know he has already, without asking my leave, passed himself off for my guardian, and is vexed at my being able to do without him. But I could not live without that little business of keeping my accounts; and by my last book of expenses and receipts may be seen, that I owe nothing to any body, but to my dear nephew many many thanks for fulfilling his father's wishes, by paying for so many years the ample annuity he left me." What a brave little old woman she was! Nobody but herself was at liberty to call her "an old poor sick creature in her dotage."

Sometimes at the theatre to be seen and saluted by all, sometimes at the palace to be honoured by the King's brother as his countrywoman, sometimes in correspondence with scientific men, and hearing of their achievements, she maintained to the last her cheerful interest in life. Though her eyesight was failing, and she could "hardly find the line again she had just been tracing by feeling on paper," her nephew writes of her in 1832, "She runs about the town with me, and skips up her two pair of stairs as light and fresh at least as some folks I could name, who are not a fourth part of her age. . . . In the morning till eleven or twelve she is dull and weary, but as the day advances she gains life, and is quite 'fresh and funny' at ten or eleven p.m., and sings old rhymes, nay, even dances! to the great delight of all who see her." It is such a picture of four score as Cicero would have been overjoyed to prefix as a frontispiece to his treatise on "Old Age," had it been available in his day. She spoke in her usual spirit of drollery of "her brittle constitution," and looked for it going to pieces in the great heats of summer fourteen years before it did. "My complaint is incurable," she says, "for it is a decay of nature. . . . What a shocking idea it is to be decaying! decaying! But, never mind—if I am decaying here, there will be as Mrs. Maskelyne once was comforting me (on observing my growing lean) the less corruption in my grave!" But, in view of the end, it is always to "the best and dearest of brothers," to her "dear nephew," and to her namesake, his little daughter, that her thoughts revert. She enjoyed the present; she revelled and lived in the past. "I have now received in all five letters," she writes to Lady Herschel at the Cape of Good Hope. "Each time after having read them over again they are put by, under thanksgiving to the Almighty, with a prayer for future protection."

"Writing to my absent friends is one of the most laborious employments I could fly to when under bodily and, of course, mental sickness, for it is not impossible I might, instead of making inquiry about my little precious grand-nephew, and the young ladies, who play, sing and sew so prettily, write, 'Oh! my back, O! I have the cramp here, there,' etc." She is nearing the end of life, "going many nights to bed without the hope of seeing another day." But the old spirit of drollery, and the lifelong love of science are constantly flashing out "I could not live without that little business of keeping my accounts," she writes, and shows herself true to a woman's household-place, and to science at the same time. "I hope people in England will never go such lengths in foolery as they do here." At Christmas time, "Cooks and housemaids present one another with knitted bags and purses, the cobbler's daughter embroidered neck-cushions for her friend the butcher's daughter, which are made up by the upholsterer at great expense, lined with white satin, the upper part, on which the back is to rest, is worked with gold, silver, and pearls." And, drollest of all, she adds, "Writing this, puts me in mind that I never could remember the multiplication table, but was obliged to carry always a copy of it about me."

A last gratification, and certainly not the least of the many she enjoyed during her retirement, was the placing in her hands of her nephew's completion in South Africa of his father's survey of the heavens. It was a work of devotion to a father's memory and greatness, executed with untiring zeal and sometimes at the risk of broken bones. She was unable to read this record of the splendid work her nephew accomplished, when four years of laborious research, and a longer period of study were at last crowned with presenting to the world a book, of which "it may be safely said, that no single publication, during the last century, has made so many and such considerable additions to our knowledge of the constitution of the heavens." What she could not read herself, another read for her, as her nephew recommended when he sent her a copy of the work.

As the end of life and activity drew nearer, there is no longer the same desire to live she felt in previous years: "I have been very ill and confined to my room now three weeks, but it seems the Destroying Angel has passed away, at which I am very glad, because I wish to be a little better prepared for making my exit than I am at present." She was then eighty years of age. A few years later she began to feel more keenly the sadness of life, and the longing for something better than it ever gives. Many of the best and brightest minds have felt as she felt when she wrote these words: "The whole of yesterday I had no other prospect but that it would have been the last of the days of sorrow, trouble and disappointment I have spent from the moment I had any recollection of my existence, which is from between my third and fourth year. . . . In the night I fell out of one fainting fit into another, and when I came to my recollection, between six and seven in the morning, I found Dr. G. sitting before me talking loud in his usual nonsensical way. Him had Betty called in her fright, for his wife (who is of use to nobody) is gone to spend the summer months in the country." Even in the presence of death and in the ninetieth year of her age, the old spirit of drollery gives piquancy to her views of men and women. In committing to paper her last reflections on the disappointments of life, she writes: You "will see what a solitary and useless life I have led these seventeen years, all owing to not finding Hanover, nor any one in it, like what I left, when the best of brothers took me with him to England in August, 1772!" In reality it was she herself, dissatisfied with earth, who was longing for something better than earth can give. She tells us what it was in the epitaph that she wrote on herself, and that was graven on her tomb:—

Here rests the earthly exterior of


Born at Hanover, March 16, 1750,
Died January 9, 1848.

The eyes of Her who is glorified were here below turned to the starry Heavens. Her own Discoveries of Comets, and her participation in the immortal Labours of her Brother, William Herschel, bear witness of this to future ages.

The Royal Irish Academy of Dublin and the Royal Astronomical Society of London enrolled Her name among their members.

At the age of 97 years 10 months she fell asleep in calm rest and in the full possession of her faculties, following into a better Life her Father, Isaac Herschel, who lived to the age of 60 years 2 months 17 days, and lies buried not far off, since the 29th of March 1767.

Were it not for the unquestionable authority with which it comes to us that she wrote this account of her death with her own hand, we might be disposed to feel the same doubts about the authorship, that critics generally feel about the authorship of the last chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses is commonly supposed to have recorded his own death and funeral. And thus closes the wonderful story of William Herschel and his sister Caroline, the story of the fairy prince of science coming to the sleeping princess of the heavens to awake her and all her company from the sleep of ages on the one hand, and, on the other, the story of the despised household drudge, Cinderella, taking a place, a deserved place, among the laurelled benefactors of humanity. Future ages are certain to witness many histories of men and women, of fairy princes and ragged Cinderellas, uniting perseverance to genius, prosaic detail to lofty imaginings. Other women since her time have shrined their names as worthy travellers among the stars; but, while they may never eclipse the brightness of the sunshine I have endeavoured to picture in this little book, Encke's homage will be echoed by all time—"A lady whose name is so intimately connected with the most brilliant astronomical discoveries of the age, and whose claims to the gratitude of every astronomer will be as conspicuous as her own exertions for extending the boundaries of our knowledge, and for assisting to develop the discoveries by which the name of her great brother has been rendered so famous throughout the literary world."

  1. Macaulay, vii. 25.
  2. As he is represented in the portrait of him painted by Phillips, in the possession of the Royal Society.
  3. For fourteen or fifteen years previous to his death, he lost the use of his lower limbs so completely from gout as to oblige him to be carried or wheeled by his servants in a chair: in this way he was conveyed to the more dignified chair of the Royal Society.
  4. This international courtesy was thus shown on no fewer than eleven occasions, and some of the collections are "now of inestimable value" (1896): Hooker, Journal, etc., p. xxxiii.
  5. Niemeyer, Scots Magazine, i. (1823), pp. 692-93.
  6. Life, ii. 307, December 23, 1820. She was then seventy-five.
  7. Astron. Soc. Trans. xii. 448-53.
  8. It is only just to Henderson to say that he was preferred by Lord Advocate Jeffrey to the Edinburgh Professorship of Astronomy over his rival, Thomas Carlyle. Froude was guilty of an unpardonable blunder in printing the unwise and acrimonious criticism of Carlyle on Henderson's fitness for the post. Facts had given a verdict in Henderson's favour.
  9. Memoirs, p. 327.
  10. "Five-foot Newtonian sweeper," Memoirs, p. 91.