The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter
AMERICAN author John Pipkin’s second novel is set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and chiefly concerns the fate of two women called Caroline. Caroline Herschel is based on a real person, while Caroline Ainsworth is Pipkin’s invention. Their stories are set in a time when exploration of the sciences flourished, especially the study of the night skies, provoked by The Great Six-Tailed Comet of 1744. Visible in London for weeks, it scared some into believing, “that there is a hole in the sky’s vault leaking the bright essence of heaven itself.” It was also a time of revolution. The recent French Revolution was descending into a blood bath while discontent in Ireland grew.
Caroline Ainsworth has grown up in the comfort of a grand house in rural Ireland with her widowed father, Arthur. He has become obsessed with astronomy and Caroline, considered unmarriageable because she has a withered arm, becomes his willing helper. She is faster than her father when it comes to the complex mathematics involved in plotting and predicting where the planets should be. Together they dedicate their lives to probing the night skies and recording their observations. Arthur is convinced that a new planet is waiting to be found, one he calls Theodosium, after his late wife, Theodosia. When musician and amateur astronomer William Herschel declares that he has found it, Arthur loses all reason. He looks at the sun through his telescope in a vain attempt to prove Herschel wrong and before long is blind. When Arthur sickens and dies, Caroline finds out the truth of her origins. Left penniless and feeling betrayed by Arthur, she leaves for London and a new life.
For anyone not familiar with astronomy, but also for those who are, Pipkin’s detailed explanations of how Arthur and Caroline study the night skies will prove fascinating. Their instruments are basic and their telescopes are crudely made by local tradesmen. The long, slow process of casting and polishing the special mirrors used in telescopes reflects the the long, slow process of mapping the planets and stars.
Caroline Herschel was the sister of William Herschel who became Astronomer Royal to the court of George III. Initially, William came to Bath to pursue a career in music but soon his hobby became all-consuming after he discovered the planet Uranus. Caroline’s growth had been stunted by contracting typhus and she had the tell-tale scars of smallpox on her face. Like the other Caroline, she was judged unsuitable for marriage and became a drudge in her mother’s house. William brought her to England and she became his housekeeper and soon his assistant as they investigated the skies. Caroline meticulously noted down William’s observations, what she called, “minding the heavens”. Although overshadowed by her brother, Caroline would go on to discover eight comets and received a small stipend for her work from the king. She was the first woman to be paid for her work in astronomy.
Arthur Ainsworth was obsessed with discovering binary stars, pairs of stars that help astronomers map the heavens. Pipkin weaves this theme of couples into the novel. Caroline and Arthur Ainsworth, Caroline and William Herschel, Arthur and William, and most prominently, Caroline and Caroline, whose lives closely mirror each other. Then there is Caroline Ainsworth and Finn, the blacksmith’s nephew with whom she falls in love and who brings her back to Ireland as rebellion breaks out.
The 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule, inspired by the French and American revolutions, was a bloody and brutal affair that lasted four months. Pipkin does not shy away from describing the cruelty and horrors committed on both sides. As Finn is forced to join the rebels, Caroline Ainsworth patiently waits for his return.
Until the latter stages of the novel, it feels as if one strand of the story isn’t relevant and the effect is a little disjointed even when it is resolved. The tale is told in the third person, focalising on each of the main characters in turn. However, the authorial voice is strong which means that the characters sometimes feel as distant as the stars they observe.
Pipkin’s novel is a lyrical meditation on what it means to be human in an ever changing world. The vastness of the heavens is matched by the passions of the men and women who explore it. Beautifully written with layers touching on science, politics and social change, it is a novel to be savoured and not rushed.