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book review

A woman astronomer awakens in ‘The Stargazer’s Sister’

Astronomer Caroline Herschel.
Astronomer Caroline Herschel.

History supplies numerous examples of instances when women’s ambitions and achievements were blunted for reasons of gender. Mozart’s sister, for instance, was as much a child prodigy as the maestro himself, yet she was famously forbidden to compose or play music once she reached marriageable age. And in the 19th century, acclaimed astronomer Caroline Herschel, sister of the even more famous astronomer William Herschel, bent to her beloved brother’s will — until she found her own. Carrie Brown takes up the real life saga of the Herschels and breathes fresh life into it in her lyrical and riveting new novel, “The Stargazer’s Sister.’’

As the story opens, Caroline (called Lina in the novel) is living a miserable and lonely life in Germany amid her family of scholars and musicians and under the eyes of a mother who seemingly despises her. Sickly and stunted from birth, Lina is robust in mind and giving in nature, but her pocked skin makes her feel that no man will ever have her, plus she feels she has no skills to make her own way. “A girl was not taught anything to save herself in the larger world,” she thinks. When she’s 22, her adored brother, William, 12 years her senior and living in England, comes to her rescue, inviting her to live with him. He’s making a name for himself as an astronomer, financing it with composing, and he could use her nimble mind, her able hands, and her moneymaking singing ability.

Though William is generous and smart, he’s also self-centered, the star of his own galaxy. When she expresses an interest in science, he teaches Lina what he knows, showing her how to make her gaze steady when she looks at the stars and how to explore a drop of water in the microscope. Together, they explore the vast heavens, and she helps him design and build a 40-foot telescope. On his own, William discovers that the Pole Star is really a double star and that one particular star isn’t a star at all, but a planet, Uranus.

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Fired with curiosity and knowledge and excited about the future, Lina can’t help but believe that by her brother’s side, she’ll be transported to a better place. There’s a price, though, for all this education. She isn’t just William’s assistant but also his caretaker, housekeeper, accountant, cook, and companion, laundering his clothes and even spoon-feeding him dinner because he can’t take the time off his work to pick up a utensil himself.

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She’s tortured because she knows that without him, she’d be living a spirit-crushing life back in Germany. But without her, William is aware that he would be lost, a fact that he feels guilty about. It’s only when William takes a wife and Lina is moved out of the house that she begins to really change. Stunned, abandoned, and left to her own devices, she begins to do her own star work and discovers a comet.

Brown probes Lina’s inner life with striking sensitivity, revealing her awakening consciousness. At first, when Lina begins discovering her comets, she denigrates herself, implying that her incredible discoveries are merely the result of patience, which is a womanly virtue, and therefore less than what a man might do. She also wrestles with whether she can forgive her brother, who shared his exhilaration with the heavens with her, but pushed her aside for a wife. Gradually, though, her keen sense of the skies and her own determination finally begin to empower her.

Brown’s eloquent afterward catalogs the wealth of material she drew from — journals, records, letters, and more from both Herschels and other sources. She also tells us what she’s added to fictionalize the story — two very different and incredibly moving romances, both so true to the sensibilities of the characters and to Brown’s themes that it feels as though all the new material surely must have actually happened.

Brown’s writing is as luminous as the skies her characters contemplate. Lina gazes up at the Milky Way, which seems “inflamed, as if the stars it contains multiply before them.” The “whole firmament” is “a brilliant — and active — hive of light.” What you come away with is a haunting sense of wonder over the planets and stars, which Lina reminds us can be seen only at night. “That is the good thing about the dark,’’ she remarks. It amplifies the light, just as the stormy times between two genius siblings, still nurtured a loving bond that sustained and challenged them both.

THE STARGAZER’S SISTER

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By Carrie Brown

Pantheon, 352 pp., $25.95

Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, “Cruel Beautiful World,’’ will be published by Algonquin in the fall.