NANTUCKET — For the first time in her many visits to the house where Maria Mitchell was born, writer Amy Brill climbed to the rooftop walkway and looked around.
On Oct. 1, 1847, Mitchell stood on a perch much like this — hers was atop the Pacific National Bank building, on nearby Main Street — and peered through a telescope at the night sky. The 25-year old Mitchell yearned to make a name for herself as an astronomer, a field in which she’d been tutored by her father, a bank executive and devout stargazer.
To Mitchell’s amazement, she discovered a comet that night that no astronomer, amateur or professional, had seen before.
Mitchell’s feat won her international fame, leading to a long, trailblazing career as a scientist, educator, and advocate for women’s equality. Brill has spent nearly two decades reading and thinking about Mitchell. Her debut novel, “The Movement of Stars,” borrows liberally from Mitchell’s story in creating a protagonist, Hannah Gardner Price, whose life closely resembles (outwardly, at least) that of the famed 19th-century astronomer.
Taking in the view on a cloudy June afternoon, Brill admitted to feeling closer than ever to Mitchell as she gazed down upon Nantucket’s quaintly shingled houses and cobblestoned streets, much as Mitchell might have done 160 years ago.
“I feel an enormous amount of respect for her,” Brill said softly. “A real kinship with what it took to persevere until she found what she was looking for. That was something I certainly did not understand when I was 25.
“I could not wrap my head around what sort of woman would spend nights on a roof, waiting for something to appear and change her life,” Brill reflected. “Something she couldn’t control. I knew I had to write about that.”
Brill’s novel, published this spring, has been warmly embraced by book clubs, by fans of historical fiction, and by reviewers like Amy Shearn, who, on Oprah Winfrey’s website Oprah.com, wrote that Brill’s novel “sings with insights about love, work, and how we create our own families.”
Brill made two trips to Nantucket in recent days, one to retrace Mitchell’s footsteps with a reporter — stops included the Nantucket Atheneum, where Mitchell once worked, and Mitchell House complex on Vestal Street — and the other to give a reading at the Nantucket Book Festival.
Set mostly in the years 1845-46, “Stars” opens with 24-year-old Hannah scanning the heavens and pondering her place in the universe. Knowledgeable about mathematics, astronomy, and celestial navigation, she pines for a deeper sense of purpose in life. In the meantime, she struggles with the expectations put upon young women of her era, including pressure to find a husband and start a family.
Hannah’s life changes dramatically when she agrees to tutor a dark-skinned seaman named Isaac Martin. As their relationship deepens, she faces the stern disapproval of her Quaker brethren, which forces Hannah to confront troublesome emotions and painful choices on her journey toward self-fulfillment.
There are many obvious parallels between Hannah and Maria (pronounced Ma-RYE-ah), yet some subtle differences too. Like Hannah, Mitchell was born into a Quaker family that valued education for both boys and girls. She, too, became a librarian and teacher as well as a gifted astronomer. Her discovery of “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” earned Mitchell a gold medal from the king of Denmark, as Hannah’s discovery does in “Stars.”
In an author’s note, Brill states that Hannah and Maria most notably share a “diligence and intellectual rigor; impatience with the constraints upon women’s freedom and education; a job at the Nantucket Atheneum; and a father and mentor without whose guidance they might not have progressed.”
At the same time, Brill reminds readers that her work is fiction, not history, and that there was no “real” Isaac Martin in Mitchell’s life. In fact, according to Brill, nothing in Mitchell’s journals or letters speaks to any romantic life she may have had in young adulthood.
‘I could not wrap my head around what sort of woman would spend nights on a roof, waiting for something to appear and change her life.’
Mitchell never married or had children. In 1846, she burned virtually all her private correspondence, adding to the mystery. What survives is dated 1855 or later.
“I wondered, why would she burn those?,” Brill recalled, retracing the steps that led her to novelize Mitchell’s story. “Was it a relationship she wanted to keep private? That’s when Isaac was born.”
For years, Brill was uncertain she’d ever complete her novel, much less see it published.
A Queens, N.Y., native, Brill studied creative writing at the State University of New York at Binghamton before embarking on a career as a freelance writer and television producer.
“Articles, documentary scripts, website copy, fund-raising letters, short stories — anything you can be paid to write, I’ve written,” she said on a ferry ride from Hyannis to Nantucket.
Seventeen summers ago, on just such a boat trip, Brill spotted a brochure referring to Mitchell and her island birthplace. “Come see the famous girl astronomer who lived on Nantucket,” it read. A brief visit to the Mitchell House complex, which also contains a library, natural science museum, and observatory, convinced Brill to write a book about the astronomer.
A year later, Brill began researching her subject more thoroughly. Many false starts later, the project remained stalled. Brill worked as an MTV writer-producer, winning a Peabody Award for “The Social History of HIV.” Seeing “Stars” to its completion proved more difficult, though.
“People gradually stopped asking how the book was going,” recalled Brill. On a 2006 trip to Spain with her future husband, Brill lost a backpack containing her research notes. Fearing the project was doomed, she let another year pass. After her first child was born, she reread what she’d written and thought it worth salvaging.
“The spark was missing, though, the passion,” Brill said. “I realized I’d have to make that part up.”
Forcing herself to write four pages daily, Brill finished a fresh draft in 2008. By early 2011, she’d completed a more polished version and submitted it to publishers. Riverhead Books quickly bought the rights.
Novelizing Mitchell’s young life — she has been the subject of at least two full-scale biographies in the past decade — made her nervous, Brill admits. Some might feel she’d taken too many liberties with Mitchell’s story, or even defamed her in some way, the author worried.
According to Mitchell Association curator Jascin Leonardo Finger, those concerns were legitimate. Fortunately, she says, Brill’s novel manages to get a lot about Mitchell right, even though Hannah is a fictional character.
“Hannah is not Maria,” Finger said, ushering Brill and a reporter around Mitchell House. “But I do see aspects of her [in Hannah], especially words she would use.”
Brill, added Finger, “is a great person with a lot of good energy” whose interest in Mitchell should spark even more curiosity about the real person.
Among Mitchell’s very real achievements were cofounding the American Association for the Advancement of Women and becoming the first woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A lunar crater is named for her.
In a ground-floor room, Brill stood beside the Dolland telescope through which “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” was first viewed in 1847.
Mitchell, Brill noted, refused to believe she was inferior to a man in any way. Brill and her husband now have two young daughters. Without the legacy of Mitchell and others like her, the novelist said, “A life for women like myself would be impossible.”Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.