Caroline Herschel

Monday, 29 October 2012


I rarely get commissioned to do pure research work for others, but when I do, it’s always a pleasure, and I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. I was working on such a task last week, and the name Caroline Herschel came up as a footnote to my work. I didn’t really have time to explore her as she wasn’t the focus of the research, but I jotted her name down in my notebook. On the weekend I did some reading up on her, and she seems to be worthy of more than just a footnote.

Caroline Herschel (1750–1848), sister of astronomer William Herschel who discovered the planet Uranus, was an extraordinary woman who was consigned to the footnote of history by her parents. Stunted by a childhood disease, it was assumed she would never marry. So of course, her parents decided she would become a maid; a woman who wasn’t attractive and who couldn’t marry was not much use to her family in those times, unless she was a domestic servant. Although her name is mentioned alongside her brother’s more well-known discoveries, she was an astronomer in her own right, discovering several comets, and becoming the first woman to receive a wage for scientific work.



It’s hard not to see a connection between her interest in astronomy and her desire for independence. I’d like to think that what began as an escape from her parents’ household also became a metaphorical escape into the potential of the limitless universe. And I also found the timing of me literally stumbling upon a reference to her while doing research work to be more than just a coincidence.

Every time I get to do research work, I feel this maddening frustration that I can’t do this all the time – that such work only randomly comes my way once every blue moon. I eat it up when it does, and I feel like I thrive. And then it’s over, and I realise that there’s no clear career path in it. I am not unique. There are many people with inquisitiveness, a hunger for knowledge and a love of narratives. The world seemingly can’t accommodate us all. Or, at least, that’s how it sometimes feels. It’s hard to go back to normal work when you’ve been given fascinating research work that inadvertently introduces you to people like Caroline Herschel in the process. It makes me wonder how many things I’ll never get to know about because quite simply, there isn’t a job, or money, or time, attached to them.


I know this is self-indulgent complaining, but everyone is allowed that every once in a while. When I finish a commissioned piece of research work, I feel like sending an email to the person who hired me: ‘give me a full-time job in this please!’ I can only hope that like Caroline, one day my interests will actually produce a ‘career’. I may not discover comets, but I’d like to discover stories.

Image credits (top to bottom): The Wizard Nebula, discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1787; Another image of The Wizard Nebula; The Sculptor Galaxy, discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1783; Another image of The Sculptor Galaxy.


Tricia Rose said...

It seems this sort of work is like the currants in a bun - there's an awful lot of bun but it's the currants which give it flavour. I think beauty is the same: I often see some stunning girl every bit as beautiful as an acknowledged star or model, going about her life, maybe her beauty is the currant in an otherwise workaday world?

Gabriela said...

I don't think all that many people are this talented in finding and working with narratives. I count myself very lucky to have found several and I hold on to those connections as tight as I can... Don't be nervous about what you aren't doing, you obviously excel at what you are. //that seems vaguely ungrammatical, but I can't put a finger on what's wrong with it//

Jessica Sue said...

I completely agree! Beautifully written.

Looking Glass said...

How very interesting! I love to hear stories of such independent women in such times where so many limits were placed upon them.

I also find astronomy so very fascinating!

~ Clare x

Debie Grace said...

Who would have thought she'd be somehow an astronomer? I really love reading life stories like this one. Thank you for sharing her life to us, Hila! Truly inspirational!

Abby said...

Thanks for sharing! Loved your thoughts and the attached photos. I presume you know about Adrienne Rich's poem, "Planetarium," which is mostly about Herschel? If not, you should definitely give it a read! I think you'd love it.

Hila said...

Tricia Rose: I normally just want the currants!

Gabriela: Thank you, that's very kind, even if it is an overestimation of my 'success' and 'talents', which to me seem non-existent most of the time! ;)

Jessica Sue: Thank you.

Clare: me too, I've always wanted to study astronomy.

Debie Grace: It's my pleasure, I was happy to be introduced to her story myself.

Abby: Oh, I forgot about that, thank you!