Carolina Lucretia Herschel – from servitude and self-education to academic authority : a life of choices or a life of adaptation ?
By Hélène Palma
Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was among the first lady astronomers in the world [i], and one who reached a degree of mastery and recognition in that science which was rather rare for an 18th-century woman with a relatively modest background [ii]. Caroline Herschel reached such a degree of scientific excellence mainly through self-education, as we shall see in the course of this article, and this makes her an example in point of the possibility for women to reach academic authority at a time when they generally had very little access to education.
Interestingly, prior to her scientific apprenticeship, Caroline was a talented musician, a singer, who wanted to pursue an artistic career in Bath where her brother already worked as an organist for the Octagon Chapel. It is William Herschel, her brother, who suddenly decided to follow a new path and who literally imposed on Caroline his new career prospects based on his personal hobby – astronomy. It has been rarely explored how the young woman reacted to this brutal change in her brother’s professional activities[iii], which amounted to annihilating her own career projects. This paper offers, through an analysis of Caroline Herschel’s biographies and personal correspondence, diaries and works[iv], to re-consider her life and career primarily as an existence of constraints, self-sacrifice and servitude even though it eventually led her to scientific excellence and international fame.
A life of constraints and daily chores in Hanover
Carolina Herschel, for such was her real name, was born in Hanover on the 16th of March 1750 to Isaac Herschel and Anne Ilse Moritzen. The Herschels had ten children, only six of whom survived to adulthood. Carolina was the only girl among the Herschels’ children, except for her elder sister who was seventeen years older than her. This situation of a quasi-lonely girl in a family of boys led her to be regarded as a potential housekeeper and this, at least at the beginning of her life, threatened to severely limit her access to any type of education. Her mother, in particular, who did not particularly cherish the little girl — this caused the child to suffer bitterly from such lack of tenderness — considered that Carolina’s education should remain practical and useful : ‘my mother was particularly determined that (my education) should be a rough, but at the same time a useful one’, (Herschel 1876, 20).
Such a limitation of her educational and social scopes for sexist reasons was nevertheless mitigated by the positive influence of others of her relatives, especially her father.
Isaac, Carolina’s father, was indeed a very supportive person, with noticeable intellectual curiosity and various interests. He insisted on giving his children, Carolina included, a good education :
‘My father wished to give me something like a polished education’ (Herschel 1876, 20). Isaac was also a musician who very early encouraged his children to develop an interest in music. A number among the Herschel children indeed proved to be gifted musicians, with William showing early talent for the oboe and violin while Jacob became a professional organist at the age of 19, as confirm Carolina’s recollections of her young age:
« It must have been in 1753 when my brother (Jacob, aged 19) was chosen organist to the new organ in the garrison church ; for I remember my mother taking me with her the first Sunday on its opening, and that before she had time to shut the pew door, I took fright at the beginning of a preludium with a full accompaniment, so that I flew out of church and home again. I also remember to have seen my brother William confirmed in his new Oböisten uniform ». (Herschel 1876, 4-5).
Carolina’s father always set a positive example for all of his children, insisting on the importance of hard work and dedicating a lot of time to music : ‘Copying music employed every vacant moment, even sometimes throughout half the night, and the pen was not suffered to rest even when smoking a pipe, which habit he indulged in rather on account of his asthmatical constitution than as a luxury’, (Herschel 1876, 14).
Isaac Herschel was also a keen observer of nature who encouraged his children to marvel at the wonders of the world around them. He was more particularly interested in the observation of the sky at night and Carolina, in her recollections, describes him taking her ‘on a clear frosty night, into the street, to make (her) acquainted with several of the most beautiful constellations, after (they) had been gazing at a comet which was then visible’ (Herschel, 1876, 8). Isaac Herschel obviously encouraged Carolina to go to school and study, which gave the little girl the basic aptitudes to face the challenges of her scientific career later in life. Fortunately for Carolina, the German educational system was already very good in the 18th century: ‘It is possible that the highest literacy levels in Europe may have been reached in Prussia, because of the introduction of obligatory schooling system from 1717’ (Brock, 27).
However, Carolina was fully aware that in spite of her father’s support, part of her family exploited her at the expense of her personal development. Carolina outspokenly expressed her bitterness in her personal writings : ‘I had been sacrificed to the service of my family under the utmost self privation without the least prospect, or hope of future reward’ (Letter from Carolina to John Herschel, Herschel Papers, 71-72) [v]. The critical distance she took with her own life and her family’s attitude led her to make the decision to physically flee Hanover and get rid of the pressure exerted on her by her mother and part of her family. The opportunity came in the form of an invitation, from her brother William, her senior by a dozen years, to join him in Bath where he had worked as a musician for six years. After a trip to Hanover in 1772, then, William Herschel returned to England ‘in the company with (his) sister’ (Herschel 1876, 28).
Bath, England : Caroline’s new start in life ?
William Herschel had settled in Bath in 1766 and had soon gained an excellent reputation both as an organist and as a music teacher :
« At the time when William Herschel brought his sister back with him to Bath, he had established there as a teacher of music, numbering among his pupils many ladies of rank. He was also organist of the Octagon Chapel, and frequently composed anthems, chants, and whole services for the choir under his management » (Herschel 1876, 29).
Carolina originally had the ambition of becoming a professional musician in England. After her settlement in Bath in 1772, then, she turned her first name into the more English Caroline and started to exert her voice thoroughly. She made her professional debut as a singer five years later in 1777 singing Handel’s Judas Maccabeus. The following year, she became premier soloist and sang Handel’s Messiah. She sacrificed every aspect of her personal life, including social interactions, and especially friendships, in order to dedicate herself to her musical ambitions :
« During this summer I lost the only female acquaintance (not friends) I ever had an opportunity of being very intimate with, by Bulmer’s family returning again to Leeds. For my time was so much taken up with copying music and practising » (Herschel 1876, 37).
Being an excellent musician trained by her father and brother William, Caroline was capable of copying the scores ‘of the Messiah and Judas Maccabeus into parts for an orchestra of nearly one hundred performers, and the vocal parts of Samson besides instructing the treble singers, of which she was now herself the first’ (Herschel 1876, 39). Her talent became nationally famous and Caroline was later offered an engagement for the Birmingham Festival. It is therefore obvious that her career as a musician and more particularly as a singer would have led her to immense success had she continued in that art.
But once again, Caroline had to face another family obstacle – her brother’s professional ambitions shifted from music to astronomy to such a point that after a few years of astronomical researches, he ended up considering a career change :
« devotion to music produced income and a certain degree of leisure (..). Every spare moment of the day, and many hours stolen from the night, had long been devoted to the studies which were compelling him to become himself an observer of the heavens (..) To his pupils he was known as not a music-master alone. Some ladies had lessons in astronomy from him » (Herschel, 1876, 30).
Caroline was soon required to help her brother in his nightly activities : she had to assist him in his sky observations, had to write his conclusions down, was asked to help him grind and polish the lenses… Such activities prevented her from practising her musical skills as she outspokenly complained about :
« I was much hindered in my musical practice by my help being continually wanted in the execution of the various contrivances, and I had to amuse myself with making the tube of pasteboard for the glasses which were to arrive from London, for at that time no optician had settled at Bath ». (Herschel 1876, 35).
Caroline soon felt that, once again, her professional plans would be subjected to her family’s demands and that her personal interests would be sacrificed because as a girl and as a young woman whe was not supposed to have choices of her own : ‘In short, I have been throughout annoyed and hindered in my endeavours at perfecting myself in any branch of knowledge by which I could hope to gain a creditable livelihood’ (Herschel 1876, 31). Caroline’s blatant discouragement was easily accountable – at her brother’s invitation and because she wanted to rid herself of her family’s pressure, she had accepted to leave her hometown and settle abroad and she had spent years perfecting her musical skills in the hope of having a career, only to find out that she was once again to yield to her family’s pressure and to start from the beginning, without being certain that this new direction would intellectually satisfy her or enable her to earn a decent living.
Forced professional reconversion …
One remembers however that Caroline was initiated to the art of observing the sky at night by her father Isaac. In spite of her primarily reluctant reaction, she resolved to adapt to the new situation and to accept to become her brother’s assistant in his activities:
« When I found that a hand was sometimes wanted when any particular measures were to be made with the lamp micrometer, etc, or a fire to be kept up, or a dish of coffee necessary during a long night’s watching, I undertook with pleasure what others might have thought a hardship » (Herschel 1876, 42).
This attitude may be regarded as a typical form of wilful subjection to her brother’s demands and calls to mind the phrase ‘wilful servitude’, originally coined by Etienne de La Boëtie (Discours de la servitude volontaire, 1576). In La Boëtie’s work the term was used to denounce people’s passive subjection to any form of political tyranny but it was later re-used, especially by 20th-century thinkers with a slightly different political meaning which may make it interesting to better understand Caroline Herschel’s attitude. Indeed, Louis Althusser denounced people’s common subjection (‘assujettissement’ in French)[vi] to authority and institutions while Pierre Bourdieu talked of symbolical violence (‘violence symbolique’)[vii] to designate submissive attitudes due to domination, especially among oppressed social groups such as women, workers, minorities, etc. : ‘Symbolical violence is this peculiar form of constraint which cannot be exerted but with the active participation – which does not mean it is fully conscious and wilful— of those who are subjected to it’ (Bourdieu, 1989, 12)[viii].
The third part of this study will try and show whether this type of analysis may apply to the case of Caroline Herschel, who first of all rebelled against her family, found enough strength to flee Hanover and her mother’s domestic pressure only to yield again to her relatives’demands by accepting to become her brother’s housekeeper and mere technical assistant. For her role consisted exclusively, at least at the beginning, in performing secondary tasks such as ‘making coffee’ or ‘transcribing articles in languages she did not understand and had never been taught’ (Brock, 120). This could also go so far as feeding him whenever necessary :
« by way of keeping him alive I was even obliged to feed him by putting the vitals by bitts into his mouth — this was once the case when at the finishing of a 7-feet mirror he had not left his hands from it for 16 hours together. ….. And generally I was obliged to read to him when at some work which required no thinking, and sometimes lending a hand ». (Herschel Caroline, Michael Hoskin ed. 2003, 55).
In the meantime, William was working on the construction and improvement of his instruments :
« My brother applied himself to perfect his mirrors, erecting in his garden a stand for his twenty-foot telescope ; (..) Many attempts were made by way of experiment against a mirror before an intended thirty-foot telescope could be completed » (Herschel 1876, 41).
William’s activities soon became famous and earned him the reputation of an outstanding scientist. This led him to travel a lot : in June 1782, William Herschel was invited over to London where he met King George III. There, he also met Nevil Maskelyne, astronomer royal and Alexander Aubert, an amateur astronomer like himself. At that point, William started to build his telescope in Greenwich :
« These two last nights I have been star-gazing at Greenwich with Dr Maskelyne and Mr Aubert. We have compared our telescopes together, and mine was found very superior to any of the Royal Observatory » (letter dated June 3 1782, Herschel 1876, 47).
It is probably at that moment that Caroline’s actual status started to change from that of an assistant to that of a genuine scientist. Indeed, Caroline staying by herself while her brother was away, started to become involved in William’s social activities and presented her brother’s telescopes and others of his instruments to the famous people who came to Bath to visit them:
« Prince Charles (Queen’s brother ) Duke of Saxe-Gotha and the Duke of Montague were here this morning. I had a message from the King to show them the instruments » (Herschel 1876, 61).
Obviously, her brother’s long absences represented for Caroline an opportunity to speak of their work but also, and probably mostly, to use his astronomical instruments on her own and without his supervision. This is how she started exploring the sky by herself : ‘I was to ‘sweep’ for comets and I see by my journal that I began August 22nd 1782 to write down and describe all remarkable appearances I saw in my ‘sweeps’, which were horizontal’ (Herschel 1876, 52). She enjoyed spending whole nights watching the sky in the cold of wintertime and by 1783, she had already discovered fourteen nebulae. When her brother was at home, she kept asking him technical questions to make her observations easier :
Once again she was determined to master her new art, and bombarded her brother with complex ‘inquiries’ over breakfast … She recorded the answers to her queries and other speculations in her ‘Commonplace Book’, which contained examples of how to take equal altitudes, how to convert sidereal time into mean time, how to find the logarithm of a number given. (Brock, 135)
Caroline’s patient observations led her to amazing and actually ground-breaking discoveries : ‘August 1.—I have counted one hundred nebulae to-day, and this evening I saw an object which I believe will prove tomorrow night to be a comet’ (Herschel 1876, 64). Indeed, on 1 August 1786, Caroline Herschel had discovered her first comet as she immediately revealed to Dr Blagden and Alexander Aubert :
« Sir, in consequence of the friendship which I know to exist between you and my brother, I venture to trouble you, in his absence, with the following imperfect account of a comet : (…) as (my brother) is now on a visit to Germany, I have taken the opportunity to sweep in the neighbourhood of the sun in search of comets; and last night, the 1st of August, about 10 o’clock, I found an object very much resembling in colour and brightness the 27 nebula of the Connoissance des Temps, with the difference, however, of being round. I suspected it to be a comet; (…) », Miss Herschel To Dr. Blagden. August 2, 1786. (Herschel 1876, 65-66).
Her fruitful research earned her the respect of her peers[ix] : Alexander Aubert sent her a letter on August 7 in which he expressed his interest in her discovery and respect for her competence:
« Dear Miss Herschel, (…) you have immortalized your name, and you deserve such a reward from the Being who has ordered all these things to move as we find them, for your assiduity in the business of astronomy, and for your love for so celebrated and so deserving a brother.I received your very kind letter about the comet on the 3rd, but have not been able to observe it till Saturday, the 5th, owing to cloudy weather. I found it immediately by your directions (…) I give you a little figure of its appearance last night and the preceding night upon the scale of Flamsteed’s Atlas Coelestis ». Alex. Aubert, Esq., To Miss Herschel. London, 1th August, 1786 (Herschel 1876, 66).
Caroline’s discoveries were of extreme importance for Caroline’s own career as an astronomer. Indeed, the following year, in 1787, the King granted William Herschel some £2,000 for his work in astronomy, but he clearly specified that Caroline should be paid as well for her meriting work, which amounted to an official acknowledgment of the quality of her research. For the first time in her life, then, Caroline was paid for her activities and this not only made her life easier but also made her the first scientific woman to earn a living thanks to her knowledge and skills[x] :
« A salary of £50 per year was settled on me as an assistant to my Brother (…). And the first money I ever in all my life thought myself to be at liberty to spend to my own liking. A great uneasiness was by this means removed from my mind » (Herschel, Caroline, Michael Hoskin ed. 2003, 94).
…Culminating in scientific excellence
In May 1788, aged 38, Caroline once more had to adapt to her family’s demands : she left her brother’s place, the latter having got married, and started a rather unsteady existence of solitude, living ‘in lodgings, coming every day for her work, and in all respects continuing the same labours (…) as before’ (Herschel 1876, 78). This element of her biography tends to confirm that Caroline lived a life of constraint and self-sacrifice[xi].
Of course, Caroline kept on observing the sky and really enjoyed this activity in which she still proved extremely successful. She discovered other comets in January and April 1790, then in December 1791, October 1793, November 1795 and August 1797: ‘Before the end of 1797 she had announced the discovery of eight comets’ (Herschel 1876, 79). She communicated the news to other scientists, among whom Dr Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal :
« Dear Sir,— Last night, December 21st, at 7 » 45′, I discovered a comet, a little more than one degree south—preceding β Lyrae. This morning, between five and six, I saw it again, when it appeared to have moved about a quarter of a degree towards δ of the same constellation. I beg the favour of you to take it under your protection ». Miss Herschel To The Rev. Dr. Maskelyne (Herschel 1876, 80).
She became extremely renowned, not only as William Herschel’s sister but only as an astronomer herself and was very much admired by her peers. Her reputation even reached foreign specialists like French astronomer Joseph Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande (1732-1807) who was all the more sensitive to women’s involvement in astronomy as he had himself published his famous book for ladies, Astronomie des dames in 1785. Here is an extract from a letter he sent her in July 1790 :
« Ma chère et savante Commère,— (…) Nous tâchons tous de seconder vos heureux travaux et ceux de votre illustre frère nous vous prions tous de recevoir vous-même et de lui presenter nos respects (..).Votre très humble et très obéissant servitcur, De la Lande. J. » De La Lande To Caroline Herschel. Rue College Royal, le 12 Juillet, 1790. (Herschel 1876, 90).
In 1798 the Royal Society published Caroline’s Catalogue of Stars, resulting from her observations : it contained a list of over 560 stars that John Flamsteed had not included in his own catalogue, as well as an index of the mistakes Caroline Herschel had noticed in it. Caroline also published a number of notices in the Royal Society’s journal, Philosophical Transactions. Such publications obviously contributed to enhance her already excellent reputation and, having become as famous as her brother, she and him were now referred to as the ‘Herschel siblings’ by their contemporaries.
When William died on 25 August 1822, the poor spinster Caroline now aged 72 resolved to leave England and settle in Hanover again. There, Caroline was regularly visited by eminent specialists of astronomy, her work being unanimously regarded as admirable : ‘no man of any scientific eminence passed through Hanover without visiting her’ (Herschel 1876, 151). In 1828, she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and given in 1835 the extraordinary distinction of an Honorary Membership. Here is an extract from the very laudative speech delivered by J. South to the Royal Astronomical Society at its eighth General Meeting on February 8th 1828 :
« (…) as an original observer she demands, and I am sure she has, our unfeigned thanks. Occasionally her immediate attendance during the observations could be dispensed with. Did she pass the night in repose ? No such thing : wherever her brother was, there you were sure to find her. A sweeper planted on the lawn became her object of amusement ; but her amusements were of the higher order, and to them we stand indebted for the discovery of the comet of 1786, of the comet of 1788, of the comet of 1791, of the comet of 1793, and of the comet of 1795, since rendered familiar to us by the remarkable discovery of Encke. Many also of the nebulas contained in Sir W. Herschel’s catalogues were detected by her during these hours of enjoyment » (Herschel 1876, 223-225).
Caroline reacted to the good news with humility and gratefulness and sent a letter to her nephew John Herschel, William’s son, expressing her surprise and embarrassment with the reception of this medal : ‘I must once more repeat my thanks to you (and perhaps to Mr. South) for thinking so well of me as to exert yourselves for having the great and undeserved and unexpected honour of a medal bestowed on me’ (Herschel 1876, 228).
Conclusion : a life of choices or a life of adaptation ?
Caroline Herschel undeniably spent her life sacrificing herself, her own interests and her own desires in the name of her entire family first, and then for the sake of her brother’s passion for astronomy : Caroline, all in all, followed, ‘with unvarying diligence and humility, the path (…) marked out for her’ (Herschel 1876, 141), which means that she did not actually choose her life but rather tried to face all the obstacles she was faced with as bravely as possible. She adapted with admirable efficiency to the various conditions imposed on her by her relatives. It can thus be firmly asserted that Caroline Herschel did not exactly decide to live the life she had. She did not decide to become an astronomer, although she became a brilliant and renowned one with the discovery of a large number of nebulae and comets, the publication of a number of books and the reception of several gold medals from scientific academies (Royal Astronomical Academy in 1828 but also a Gold Medal for science bestowed on her by the King of Prussia in 1846).
Caroline’s wilful servitude, however, did not lead her to a dead end but to an engrossing scientific career at a moment when few women – but the very rich ones—could have access to sciences, or only through very simplified works such as De Lalande’s Astronomie des dames.
Caroline Herschel, then, despite her coming from a modest family and despite a relatively unsteady life did have access to a high quality scientific education, partly thanks to her strong personality but also to her very demanding –as well as eventually very helpful— brother :
« As a woman who had actually discovered astronomical objects, Caroline Herschel, in contrast to her female contemporaries whose only link to science was through the popularisation of ideas, was always two steps ahead ». (Brock, 181).
In this perspective Caroline Herschel definitely represents a very striking illustration of resilience, adaptation, intelligence, stamina and in the end success and excellence.
French version :
« Carolina Lucretia Herschel – de la servitude et la formation autodidacte à l’autorité savante : vie de choix ou vie d’adaptations ? »
[i] Indeed, apart from Elisabeth Hevelius née Koopman (1647-1693), who was described by François Arago as ‘the first woman, to my knowledge, who was not frightened to face the fatigue of making astronomical observations and calculations’(François Arago, 1865, 312) and who was very much interested in astronomy but who always studied and published works with her husband, Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687), those ladies who developed a high degree of competence in that field were not common. As Kristine Larsen points out, even if the astronomical community has always been quite inclusive, « inclusivity does not necessarily equate to equality » (Larsen, 2009, 104). And indeed, astronomical observations in the 18th century could happen to be a family practice, however the women who conducted research on their own and published the results of their observations under their own names were seldom. Caroline Herschel is probably the first one of this kind.
[ii] Caroline came from a lower middle-class family, with a somewhat educated father but numerous siblings who considerably weakened the financial means of the household and resulted in sacrificing the children’s education, especially Caroline’s. Her situation was therefore very different from that of very learned and well-off 17th-and-18-th century ladies such as Margaret Cavendish or later on Emilie du Châtelet, both belonging to the aristocracy. Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623-1673) indeed benefited from a highly refined education just like Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749), a marquise (Marchioness) and a highly competent mathematician who translated Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French.
[iii] See the biographies by Claire Brock (2007), Marilyn Ogilvie (2008) or Michael Hoskin (2013).
[iv] Caroline Herschel’s Memoir and correspondence were published in 1876 by her nephew’s widow, Mrs John Herschel.
[v] Letter from Herschel Caroline to Herschel John, Herschel Papers, BL Eg 3762, 71-72.
[vi] ‘Idéologies et appareil idéologique d’Etat’ (Positions, Paris : ed. sociales, 1976, 73).
[vii] La Noblesse d’Etat : Grandes écoles et esprit de corps, Paris : Minuit, 1989.
[viii] ‘La violence symbolique est cette forme particulière de la contrainte qui ne peut s’exercer qu’avec la complicité active – ce qui ne veut pas dire consciente et volontaire – de ceux qui la subissent’.
[ix] ..and excellent reputation worldwide and through centuries. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) dedicated a poem to Caroline Herschel in 1864 (Nature and God — I neither knew/Yet Both so well knew me/They startled, like Executors/Of My identity./Yet Neither told — that I could learn –/My Secret as secure/As Herschel’s private interest/Or Mercury’s affair –), (Dickinson, Johnson ed. 1960, poem 835).
[x] « Caroline was delighted when the King acceded to William’s request, for this made her the first professional female astronomer in history » (Hoskin, 2013, 122).
[xi] Even though she very rarely expressed her bitterness, even displaying extreme admiration and gratefulness for William, whom she regarded as ‘the most generous of brothers’ (Herschel 1876, 149).
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- Herschel Caroline, Catalogue of Stars taken from Mr Flamsteed’s Observations in the second volume of the Historia Coelestis, and not inserted in the British Catalogue, with an Index to point out every observation in that volume belonging to the stars of the British Catalogue. To which is added, a collection of errata that should be noticed in the same volume, London : Royal Society, 1798.
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- Hoskin Michael, Caroline Herschel: Priestess of the New Heavens, New York : Science History Publications,
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