By Carrie Brown
Reviewed by SA
It’s no secret to readers of Readcommendations: I’m an astrophysics student. I love everything there is to do with science, with space and with fantastic women who paved the way for me to be where I am now. So of course I jumped at the opportunity to read a novel about Lina Herschel: sister of the great William Herschel, she herself was not only an assistant to the astronomer, but a powerful mind. This novel did not disappoint.
This exquisitely imagined novel opens as the great astronomer and composer William Herschel rescues his sister Caroline from a life of drudgery in Germany and brings her to England and a world of music-making and stargazing. Lina, as Caroline is known, serves as William’s assistant and the captain of his exhilaratingly busy household. William is generous, wise, and charismatic, an obsessive genius whom Lina adores and serves with the fervency of a beloved wife. When William suddenly announces that he will be married, Lina watches as her world collapses.
I was sad to read that this was only based on Lina’s life, rather than be a biography, though I can easily imagine this as being the true story of her life: it is so believable. Brown manages to create a story that feels authentic, while at the same time weaving beautiful prose. The novel fits to its period, almost as if it was written by one of Lina’s contemporaries.
The novel is slow going, following Lina’s life from her childhood on. About a third of the story or so takes place at her childhood home, following the difficult life that the young woman leads. She struggles through life with an unloving mother, difficult siblings, and an illness that will leave her permanently disfigured.
It is once she and William are finally reunited that the story picks up. I loved reading about how she saw the world, and how Herschel explains it. Science in the Georgian era was fascinating: so much was being discovered, and the characters are excited and enthuastic about new learning. It gave the novel a sense of wonder which drew me right in. I was excited to read about what happened next, and was engrossed by the plot.
Lina is a fantastic character, whom you can’t help but love. You relate to her instantly: her hunger for knowledge, her endless ideas. Seeing her trapped by her gender is painful; seeing her take control of her life is invigorating. She works far too hard though, and at moments she is much less likable, but I still loved learning more about this young woman.
Even if she wasn’t a real person, I would have read this story anyways. Knowing she’s the first woman to have been paid for scientific work, and to have eventually even have received the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society made me love her even more. Oh, and she discovered quite a few comets. Impressive woman!
Her borderline obsession with her brother was something I would like to discuss with other readers sometime. After he decides to marry, the novel revolves around if she can build her own life for herself. Can she be happy on her own?
A fantastic woman in science, in history: a must read. Pick it up on January 19th, 2016, by Pantheon. Thank you Penguin first to read for the chance to read this novel.
Bonus: One of my favorite paintings, representing a Georgian experiment in science.
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
1768, Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’