Book Addiction: Comets and Hard-won Independence – The Stargazer’s Sister

It’s time for another Book Addiction post, where I share a historical fiction story I read recently and enjoyed in hopes that you might appreciate it, too.

Last month’s Book Addiction feature was a rousing, plotting, romantic story, so this month I’m switching it up something meditative. The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown is a subtle, introspective tale, one well-suited for curling up to read with a cup of tea at hand.

It is a blossoming tale of Caroline ‘Lina’ Herschel, who worked as an assistant and housekeeper to her brother, astronomer William Herschel, before becoming an astronomer in her own right, eventually awarded honours including a gold medal from the Astronomical Society of London and an Honorary Membership to the Astronomical Society, as one of the first woman members.

Having survived a bad childhood fever that left her face pockmarked and her growth stunted, Lina knows she isn’t a likely candidate for marriage, and struggles against a stifling relationship with her mother. Her world opens up after her elder brother, William, rescues her from her dreary home in Hanover and brings her to live with him in England. Working with him on astronomy, Lina gains a sense of the world always being in motion, an irrevocable comprehension of the vastness of the universe. (While reading, I did too; obviously I’ve grown up knowing about the solar system and the stars, but this book reminded me to appreciate just how complex our sky really is).

In a way, her her world simultaneously shrinks, with William becoming the centre of it. Though the siblings have a close relationship, his passion and focus for astronomy means that he relies on Lina, sometimes taking her for granted. Her devotion is nearly unwavering; indeed, I got the impression sometimes that she cared for her brother a little too much, relying on him as a surrogate for the other missing relationships in her life.

William’s marriage at age fifty triggers a rift between them. Lina has been his housekeeper, assistant, and closest friend for years, is hurt by abruptly being thrust into a role of not being needed, of sudden independence when she has to move to her own cottage instead of sharing their house. But this is when Lina truly comes into her strength as an intelligent, confident woman, excelling in a field dominated by men. Lina’s story will leave you musing about your own passions and expectations in life.

From the book jacket:

From the acclaimed author of The Last First Day: a beautiful new period novel — a nineteenth-century story of female empowerment before its time — based on the life of Caroline Herschel, sister of the great astronomer William Herschel and an astronomer in her own right.

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. With her characteristically elegant prose, Brown creates from history a compelling story of familial collaboration and conflict, the sublime beauty of astronomy, and the small but essential place we have within a vast and astonishing cosmos. Through Lina’s trials and successes, we witness the dawning of an early feminist consciousness, of a woman struggling to find her own place among the stars.

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