The Stargazer’s Sister

Written by Carrie Brown
Review by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Carrie Brown’s seventh novel, The Stargazer’s Sister, is the richly-told tale of Caroline Herschel, sister of the famous astronomer, William Herschel, and an astronomer in her own right. Beginning with the early life of ‘Lina’ in mid-18th century Germany, where she is tormented by her cruel brother, Jacob, and abused by her mother, the story then moves to England. Rescued by her favorite brother, William, and swept into William’s life as if she is mere flotsam in the vast sea of stars, Lina escapes, some might say, from the frying pan into the fire.

Lina is thrilled to be with her brother and swears she will never complain, no matter what he asks of her. Amazingly, she lives up to this promise (well, almost) though she is required to run the house, cook food for the workers who are struggling to create William’s enormous telescope, help William at night by taking notes while he charts the heavens, and even feed William while he works, as if he were a baby. She is even asked to sift dung.

In spite of these impossible demands, little sleep, and the constant threat of poverty, Lina is able to learn about the cosmos at her brother’s side. His passion becomes her passion. She devotes her life to William, in the way that a poor woman with no marital prospects would be forced to do in the 19th century. William has no qualms about taking his sister’s help; indeed, he could not be a ‘genius’ without her.

Wonderfully written with keen insight into the obsessive, almost marital relationship between Lina and William, The Stargazer’s Sister offers us a glimpse of the limited world offered to women of intelligence in earlier times.