Women worth Emulating/Chapter 3

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Miss Caroline Herschel.


There is a hallowed charm in the relationship of sister, when its duties are tenderly felt and faithfully fulfilled. It has often been remarked that young men, who have grown up surrounded by a group of amiable sisters, or even in companionship with only one who possessed a loving heart and gentle mind, are easily known by their superior refinement and their deference to and respect for women. "I knew he must have had nice sisters," is a frequent comment, when the speech and deportment of a young man has led to an inquiry as to his family connections.

I do not say that many a young man has not attained mild, considerate, kindly manners who has never had a sister; but I hold that one of the most refining educational influences is possessed in families where the affection and innocent gaiety of the girls tempers the hardihood and roughness of the boys. The two sexes growing up together in the household do each other good. The sisters gain in frankness, courage, activity, and it may be, in solid intelligence, if the boys are conscientious; while the brothers become more considerate in act and speech, purer and gentler in thought and word and action.

The sweet, strong bond which nature knits at birth between the children of the same parents, nursed at the same bosom, fondled on the same lap, kneeling at the same household altar, ought to be able to defy the changes and vicissitudes of life, although these affect this relationship more than any other. Sons go forth to battle with the world, daughters marry and enter upon other and nearer ties and responsibilities; still the heart cannot be quite right which does not always retain and respond to the first early claims—the associations identified with childhood. Sad is it when the cares of the world obliterate the tender memories of early youth, or the pride of life dries up or diverts the fountains of affection which welled forth in the home of childhood.

To some true hearts this kindred tie, when it has been stretched across wide oceans to far distant lands, has bravely borne the strain, and grown the tighter by the firm clasp with which at each end it has been held. Multitudes might and do echo the kindly words of Goldsmith—

"Where'er I roam, whate'er new realms I see,
My heart, untravelled, fondly turns to thee;
Still to my brother turns, with ceaseless pain.
And drags at each remove a lengthening chain."

In literary biography there are many memorable sisters of distinguished men. The poet Wordsworth testified as to the softening influence his sister. Miss Deborah Wordsworth, exerted on his mind and manners, and the benefit he derived from her wise criticisms. From his own experience of a relationship that never was interrupted by any newer ties on Miss Wordsworth's part,—for she lived with him until her death, and as long as health permitted, devoted herself to his family,—from tender reverence for this life-long bond of love, so precious in his own case, the poet could deeply appreciate its value; and he said of the quaint essayist and his sister—Charles and Mary Lamb—

"Thus, 'mid a shifting world,
Did they together testify of time
And seasons' difference—a double tree,
With two collateral stems sprung from one root."

In humble life there have been most worthy instances of sisterly affection, by which the welfare of brothers has been so promoted as to aid them in their upward struggle to a higher position of life. Catherine Hutton is a memorable case in point. William Hutton, the successful bookseller, and valued historian of the important town of Birmingham, which now shines like a star in the midst of England, passed through as sad an experience of suffering and hardship in childhood as was ever lived through and triumphed over.

At seven years of age the poor child was put to work in a silk-mill, and being too short for his hands to reach the machinery, he was mounted an high pattens to pursue his toil. Seven years of this slavery passed, and then, the boy being out of his time, trade was bad, and he could not get employment. He was again bound for seven years to the stocking weaving, a relative being his master, or rather his tyrant. Taunts and blows were his portion in his second apprenticeship. His mother was dead, and his father drank; one only heart yearned to the motherless boy, and that was his sister Catherine's. The poor boy made an effort to escape from his tyrant, by running away when he was seventeen years of age; and his narrative of his journey,—the loss of his bundle of clothes containing all he had in the world, his sleeping on a butcher's block at night, and his subsequent famished wanderings, is as affecting as any record of American slavery. His brutal uncle was, however, brought to own the value of the lad's services, and promising to treat him better, William returned and served out his time.

In his few, very few, intervals of leisure, and by subtracting from the hours of sleep in summer mornings, William Hutton managed to cultivate his mind; and growing fond of books, he also began a little traffic in them by buying a book for his own reading and then selling it to obtain another. By tact and shrewdness he managed to make a profit out of his little trading. It Was well that he did; for on his being out of his time as a stockinger—though he worked two years as a journeyman—trade was bad and employment uncertain, and so he bought himself an old bookbinder's press, and taught himself enough of the art of bookbinding to renovate the shabby and tattered books which alone he had the means to purchase. He took a little shop, and his sister Catherine came to live with him; and with tender gratitude he recounts:—

"I set off at five every Saturday morning, carried a burden of from three pounds weight to thirty, opened shop (or stall) at ten, starved in it all day upon bread and cheese and half a pint of ale, took from one to six shillings, shut up at four, and by trudging through the solitary night and deep roads five hours, I arrived at Nottingham by nine, where I always found a mess of milk porridge by the fire prepared by my invaluable sister."

We can picture the welcome and the smile that greeted the weary, foot-sore man, as he entered his dwelling, and cannot doubt that to his sister's care and kindness it was due that his health and life were preserved in his hard wrestle with fortune. The tenderness and domestic order of that kind sister kept him from resorting to the public-house, preserved both his health and morals; and he knew and owned in after-life, when he became a thriving and a prosperous man, that his sister had been a true helper, without whose aid he would probably have succumbed to the hardship of his lot.

William Hutton was not merely a prosperous man, he was good in all the various relationships of life, and he lived to extreme old age.

On the publication of his "History of Birmingham," which had a very large circulation, he was elected a Fellow of the Antiquarian Society of Edinburgh. Wealth and honours followed; but in wealth as in poverty he retained a humble, kindly, grateful nature, and always delighted to own his great obligations to his sister Catherine.

Certainly the most memorable case in modern biography of sisterly sympathy and help is furnished in the life of Miss Caroline Herschel, of whom incidental mention has been made in the sketch of Mrs. Mary Somerville. The splendour of the name of Herschel, and the scientific distinctions attained by Sir William, and Sir John his son, might throw into complete shade the early history of the family, and thus prevent us from knowing and being instructed by a very impressive and beautiful domestic history, only that the recent publication of the life of Miss Herschel[1] throws the quiet light of home on the narrative of the scientific progress of her distinguished relatives.

In the garrison school at Hanover, from 1739 to 1755, there were a group of pupils ranging from the age of two to fourteen, the elder boys of whom were noted for their talents, particularly in music. Jacob, William, and John had all been well instructed at home in that art by their father, a musician in the Guards' band. But this good father's plans for the education of his family were much hindered by his ill health. He was a martyr to asthma and rheumatism, owing to the hardships he had endured in war-time with the army. But his children were a great compensation. The eldest, Sophia, went away to reside with a family, where she married early a musician named Griesbach; and the three elder boys soon obtained employment—Jacob as an organist, and William and John in the band. Their brightness rather threw into the shade the fifth child of the family, Caroline, a little, quiet, plain-looking girl. By her own account, she was not much cared for in the busy household, some of whom—the eldest sister and brother—were certainly selfish and exacting. But there was one brother, William, to whom the little Caroline always firmly attached herself with all the strength of a loving heart, sadly repressed in its demonstrations. William had always a kind look and word for his little sister, which fell on her heart like dew upon a drooping flower.

There was a younger child than Caroline, who completed the family group, Alexander, a fine boy, the care of whom fell to the lot of the sister five years his elder.

Never was there a harder worked child than Caroline Herschel. She had to do the actual drudgery of the house, and in her life calls herself "Cinderella,"—running errands, nursing the baby, washing up after meals, mending the clothes, filled all the time that she was not at the garrison school, which of course, with all the enforced punctuality of a German child, she attended. It is affecting to read such statements as the following, of her early recollections. The incident occurred before she was seven years of age, and her father was returning home after an absence:—

"My mother being very busy preparing dinner, had suffered me to go 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 me, 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 another place she says, "I was mostly, when not in school, sent with Alexander to play on the walls, or with the neighbours' children, in which I seldom could join; and often stood freezing on the shore to see my brother skating till he chose to go home. In short, there was no one who cared anything about me."

A sad testimony. This doubtless had the effect of concentrating her affection on the one brother who did care something for her. Her father, too, she always remembered with great tenderness, for he perceived some talent in the child, and taught her a little music and singing,—not with his wife's concurrence. Mrs. Herschel was a toil-worn mother, wearied with her necessary household tasks. She saw that her eldest daughter's education had not made her helpful, but the reverse; that her elder sons' talents were likely to cause them, as they did, to leave their native land in search of a wider sphere; therefore she was resolute to prevent little Caroline having any but the humblest and plainest instruction—what the school laws prescribed, and no more.

Thus there was the greatest impediment to Caroline's mental progress which could possibly exist. A child—a daughter especially—is so influenced by a mother's feelings and prejudices, that it is one of the marvels which real life supplies, more strangely than fiction can do, that this little hard-worked household drudge should have ever emerged from the gloom of her early condition. This it is which makes her life so valuable; what she was, quite as much as what she did, is a rich legacy of instruction to all. This little girl, who was to become the greatest female astronomer of the age, was a capital knitter, and records that she knitted a pair of stockings for one of her brothers, which when done were as long as she was high.

The departure of the two eldest brothers for England on a musical tour was the next important event in the family. This was followed by the death of the good father, to the deep grief of his wife and children, to whom he left "little more than the heritage of a 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."

The little Caroline was thrown, as she says, into a "state of stupefaction" for many weeks after this bereavement. All hope of intellectual improvement seemed now closed to her. She went for a short time to learn millinery and dressmaking, but this was not continued long. She returned to her household duties, and the toiling mother was constant at her spinning-wheel, while the sons were gaining great reputation in England, particularly at Bath, where William was mostly resident.

It should be noted that from William's earliest years he had shown not merely musical talent, but a great mechanical and inventive faculty. His mind had a wide range, and he could study languages and mathematics, and yet train his hands to skill in mechanics. He was never idle, but always acquiring; indeed, idleness was unknown in the family, though some were more diligent and far more unselfish than others.

Thus some years passed on, until Caroline was twenty-two, when there came a letter from her brother William, proposing that she should join him at Bath. He remembered her voice and singing, and thought by his instruction he might make her useful for his winter concerts at Bath. She was to return to Hanover, if on trial she did not succeed. Her eldest brother Jacob, who, as she said, had never heard her voice except in speaking, turned the whole scheme into ridicule. But stimulated by the hope of doing something to aid her brother and gain a living for herself, she began to study, practise, and prepare herself. Meanwhile, in the expectation of going away, she knitted as many cotton stockings for her mother and youngest brother "as would last two years at least."

In the August of 1772, her brother William came to see his mother, and take Caroline to England. She says, "My mother had consented to my going with him, and the anguish of my leaving her was somewhat alleviated by my brother settling a small annuity on her, by which she would be able to keep an attendant to supply my place."

What a journey she had to England! In these days, the cheapest train and steamer take a passenger passenger to the Continent in comfort in a few hours; then, Miss Herchel travelled six days and nights in an open postwagen, and then embarked at Helvoetsluys, on a stormy sea, to the packet-boat, two miles distant; and she and her brother were, she says, "thrown on shore by the English sailors like balls, at Yarmouth, for the vessel was almost a wreck, without a main and another of the masts."

Her troubles were not over on landing; for after a hasty breakfast, brother and sister mounted some sort of cart, to take them to the place where the London coach passed. They were upset into a ditch, fortunately dry, and came off with only a fright; some kind fellow-passengers, who accompanied them to London, helping them.

Poor Caroline entered the metropolis bareheaded, having lost her hat, amid her other troubles of the way. The landlady of the inn in the city lent her a bonnet, and thus equipped, she made one short excursion, to see something of the metropolis. Curiously enough, among all the fine shops she noticed only one with an interested and longing gaze—it was an optician's. But they could not linger. That same night saw them on the way to Bath, where they arrived, she says, "almost annihilated, having been only twice in bed during their twelve days' journey."

It must have been a strange new life to the little German girl at Bath. Her brother William was organist at the Octagon chapel, director of the public concerts, and as a teacher of music he had a large circle of pupils from the first families. All his professional work was, however, with him but means to an end. Every moment of leisure that he could snatch by day from his musical pursuits, and every hour that he could subtract from his sleep at night, were devoted to those astronomical studies to which, by the strong workings of natural genius, he was impelled with a force he had no power or wish to resist.

From the quietude of her retired home, and the monotonous music of her mother's spinning-wheel and her own knitting needles, Caroline was plunged at once into a life of ceaseless activity. She had a purpose quite as strong as her brother's, and that was—to be in all things possible, and some that seemed impossible, his devoted helper. It is said of her, that for ten years she persevered by night and day, "singing when she was told to sing, copying when she was told to copy, lending a hand in the workshop (where her brother manufactured his telescopes), and taking her full share in all the stirring and exciting changes by which the musician ultimately became the king's astronomer and a celebrity."

Besides all these unusual duties, she kept her brother's house, and had a full share of trouble with inefficient and wasteful servants, whose extravagance shocked her thrifty habits and harassed her temper. Yet she never says anything of her own exertions or privations in that arduous time of toil, and only recalled them to her nephew in after-days, "to show" as she said, "with what miserable assistance your father made shift to obtain the means of exploring the heavens." Every one but herself would call it most invaluable assistance, every power of her body and mind being devoted to him.

At breakfast times, upon her first arrival, her brother gave her some lessons in English and arithmetic. "By way of relaxation, we talked of astronomy, and the bright constellations with which I had made acquaintance during the fine nights we had spent on the postwagen, travelling through Holland." In this desultory way she began the studies in which she ultimately excelled. Had she chosen, there is little doubt she might have had great success as a public singer; but her brother's tastes and pursuits were hers, and no excitement of praise, or hope of emolument, ever interfered with her steady resolve to work for and with him.

The difficulties, fatigues, and dangers of her brother's experiments and first mechanical contrivances were almost innumerable. There was then no optician resident in Bath, and the toil of making tubes for telescopes, polishing mirrors, procuring or inventing tools, took up all the time that could be spared from music. Indeed, Caroline had to watch her brother, and almost put the food in his mouth, so that his health might not suffer by his mind being so absorbed in his scientific pursuits.

As far as a wide reading of biography enables me to judge, I think there is no record of such hard, various, and continued study and work as that which was performed by this remarkable woman. Her brother's career was extraordinary, but he had the advantage of a good, sound, early education, and habits of study fostered by his father's approbation. Caroline had merely been able to gather the crumbs of knowledge that fell around her in her childhood's home, and to devour them in secrecy and fright, being far more likely to have blame than praise. All the deficiencies of her early mental training she had now to make up, as well as to pursue tasks wholly unusual to her sex. At night she watched the heavens with her brother, regardless of, yet not without feeling, cold and weariness. Once, on a bitter December night, she records, that in making some alteration in the machinery of the telescope, she slipped on the snowy ground, and was impaled on an iron hook. "My brother's call, 'Make haste,' I could only answer by a pitiful cry, 'I am hooked.' He and the workman 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 (water bandages) and tying kerchiefs about it for some days." The wound was bad for a long time; and a physician told her that had a soldier met with such a hurt he would have been entitled to six weeks' nursing in hospital.

The astronomical discoveries of her brother attracted the attention of the scientific world, and led to George III., his Queen, and the Princesses taking an interest in the astronomer. Royal patronage, and still more, his own strong desire, determined William Herschel to devote himself entirely to his astronomical studies. The brother and sister played and sung professionally for the last time on Whit-Sunday, 1782, at St. Margaret's Chapel, Bath, the anthem for the day being a composition of William Herschel.

The honours which came to the brother were by no means remunerative. He gave up his pupils and musical career at Bath, which had enabled him to spend a large amount of money on scientific instrument and experiments. His salary, when he was appointed Royal Astronomer, was but £200 a year! Well might Sir William Watson say, "Never bought monarch honour so cheap."

This stipend would not have paid the rent of the new Observatory and the expenses of frequent journeys to and fro to the king and queen at Windsor, but for the astronomer's success in making telescopes for sale. He was compelled to pursue this mechanical branch, or he could not have continued his observations of the heavens.

His sister, finding she must qualify herself as assistant astronomer, learned to use the telescope, and, as she called it, "sweep the heavens," in which she soon acquired great skill. In her brother's absences from home, she, to use her own quaint phrase, "Minded the heavens," and with such success that her watching was rewarded in a very wonderful way. On the 1st of August, 1786, she discovered a comet; and, her brother being abroad, she with characteristic promptitude wrote on the following morning an account of her discovery to two eminent men. Dr. Blagden and Alex. Aubert, Esq., who in a few days congratulated her warmly, the latter saying, "You have immortalized your name; and you deserve such a reward from the Being who has ordered all these things to move as we find them, for your assiduity in the business of astronomy, and for your love for so celebrated and deserving a brother."

From this time, Miss Caroline. Herschel became what, in her humility, she never desired to be—a celebrity. She rather shrunk from any praise of herself, as if it was taken from her brother. He was to her as the sun, and she merely a shadow called up by his brightness. Surely, it was an absurd and exaggerated humility in her to say, "I did nothing for my brother but what a well-trained puppy-dog would have done. I was a mere tool, which he had the trouble of sharpening."

All the thoughtful people of her own time, and still more since the narrative of her life has been given to the world, will not take her own estimate of herself. She achieved individual, quite as much as relative greatness.

Space will not permit me to follow the career of Miss Herschel as an astronomer, except to remind my young readers that she did not allow herself to become less diligent as she grew more celebrated. A real love of science for its own sake, and not for any praise, still less for pecuniary advantage, possessed and ennobled her mind. She had the small salary of fifty pounds a year awarded her as assistant astronomer, and this was continued as a pension in her old age.

Her discovery of the first comet was followed by that of seven or eight others. After her brother's marriage, which took place late in his life to a very amiable lady. Miss Herschel removed to a small residence near him, and continued to sit up with him in his observatory, note down his observations, and make necessary and difficult calculations for him. She was greatly delighted, with what may be called an almost maternal joy, when a son of that beloved brother was placed in her arms—that son who lived to nobly inherit his father's genius, and uphold and extend the fame of the honoured name of Herschel.

Of course as celebrity came to her she was sought out by the wealthy and distinguished; but whether in the courtly sphere of royalty, or among the elite of fashionable and scientific circles, she always retained the unaffected simplicity of her manners, delighting all by her friendliness and entire freedom from assumption. She was a true gentlewoman in heart and manners, thinking always of others rather than of herself.

Miss Herschel reached the age of seventy, and was still toiling on at her celestial studies, when her brother, Sir William, died, full of years and honours, aged eighty-two. She mourned him with an intensity of sorrow that seemed like the uprooting of her own heart. She felt that she could not live in England now he was gone, and went home to her native land to die. It was not exactly a wise determination. The resolutions we take in sorrow, or in any strong emotion, are more the result of excited feeling than calm judgment; and so it was in this case. The country she returned to, after nearly fifty years' absence, was not at all like the place she had left, or that youthful memory had retained in her mind. All her immediate acquaintance and most of her kinsfolk were gone, or came to her as strangers. She left the most cultured circle in England to find neither companionship for her heart or her mind. Yet deep as the disappointment must have been, she did not say much about it; for at first she thought her life would not last long, and after that she grew more accustomed to the change. Her correspondence with her nephew, Sir John Herschel, to whom she transferred the love she had borne his father, that nephew's success in his scientific career, the letters and tributes she received from eminent people throughout England and the world, and the respect with which she was treated by all at Hanover, from the king and his family, with whom she was a great favourite, to the more accessible circles of intellectual society— all these gradually reconciled her to her residence, and made it less a state of exile.

Moreover, her sincere and cheerful piety sustained her, as year followed year and found her yet remaining, still taking an interest in all that was going on in the scientific world, and deeply sympathising in the greater advantages of education that were coming within the reach of her own sex. She deplored what she thought (and not without reason) the extravagance in modern attire among women. Her own modest income of £50 a year, to which her nephew insisted, against her remonstrance, on adding another £50, was always sufficient for her wants, although she visited and received the visits of royalty. A single maid-servant conducted her frugal household arrangements in her simple apartments; and thus in all the dignity of simplicity and independence her life went on, until it almost seemed as if death had forgotten her.

Sir John Herschel's visit to the Cape (1834), to make astronomical observations, interested her greatly. She was amused when the astronomical societies of England and Dublin elected her a member, and awarded her a medal. She could not believe she had done anything very great, or indeed at all worthy of being called great; and she said, quaintly enough, "To think of their electing me, when I have not discovered a comet for eighteen years!"

She lived to within nearly two years of a hundred. In anticipation of her death, she had long before composed her epitaph, and left memorials to her nephew and a few relatives, and her books and telescopes to friends and learned Societies.

She retained her faculties unclouded, and her will strong and active to the last. It was winter when the end came, and she had reluctantly to keep her bed, but was free from pain, and able to raise herself and converse.

The guns which announced the birth of a child in the royal family struck on her dying ear; she was told the cause. The departing one expressed hopes for the new pilgrim, and then fell gently asleep. With scarcely a struggle, she entered into rest on the 9th of January, 1848. She was buried beside her father and mother, and her tomb bears the following inscription:—

Here rests the earthly exterior of
born at Hanover, March 16th, 1750,
died Jany. 9th, 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.

  1. "Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel." By Mrs. John Herschel.