It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in STEM fields, both currently and historically. You would think that a greater effort would be made to acknowledge and educate the public about those women who have contributed in those fields—and there are some groups who are trying. Novels like Carrie Brown’s upcoming The Stargazer’s Sister will help to further the growing awareness and interest in bringing modern recognition to women who have been historically marginalized—women like astronomer, Caroline Herschel.
From the early days of her life, Caroline “Lina” Herschel was close to her older brother, William. Despite the difficulties of growing up in an overcrowded and underfunded family, Lina took to her brother’s instruction and educational guidance with passion and amazement. Circumstances separating them and her own illnesses strained her relationships with some members of her family, but when William—having settled in England—agreed to bring her over to rescue her from living miserably with her unappreciative and malicious mother, Lina vows to do anything and everything she can to assist William in his life’s work. She shares much of his obsessive nature but is better at remembering things like eating and sleeping, and the working relationship they develop enables William to build increasingly larger telescopes and discover hundreds of new stars, comets, and even a planet (Uranus). But as time goes by, Lina becomes more aware of the dynamics in their relationship and that she wants to be something—someone—more than just her brother’s assistant.
What Brown’s novelization of the life of Caroline Herschel does best is portray the tumultuous and emotional internal struggle of Lina. The awareness of how society views her—for her altered physical appearance following a devastating childhood illness and her lack of apparent suitability as a prospective wife—clashes with the freedom and wonder she feels when gazing at the night sky. She wants to be useful to her brother who has helped her in so many ways, but at the same time recognizes and sometimes resents the self-centered way he goes about his life. Her self-chastisement in instances when it is clear—to a modern reader, at least—that he is taking her for granted can be beyond frustrating (and if I were in her shoes, I would not have put up with half of what she endures). But at the same time, her affection for her brother and her faith in his work provide her with a drive and purpose that she does truly find fulfilling—and the way that she researches and makes discoveries of her own in his absence (and for years after his death) show how important her work really was to her. When it comes to choosing between acting out on her hurt feelings or her work, she sets aside personal feeling in favor of the work that means so much to her.
What I found difficult about the novel—and it was more an issue in the early chapters than towards the end of the book—was the book’s relationship with time. In Lina’s childhood especially, there are a number of jumps back and forth between events that are “past” and events that are present (and a few instances where events are “future”). The use of tense is very carefully watched to distinguish between the three but I found that only made it more confusing and intangible. A stricter, linear chronology would have made settling into the narrative easier and more fluid. When it comes to Lina’s relationships with men who weren’t her brother (or their hired boy, Stanley), I think there could have been further development so they felt less tacked on—though seeing how they were influenced by that core relationship with her brother is interesting of itself. Frustrating as it is to see Lina’s life framed around her brother’s in this way, it was the reality of the time for women to have their wishes, hopes, dreams, and lives structured to serve the men in their lives.
The Stargazer’s Sister will be available for purchase January 19, 2016.