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Herschel, Caroline Lucretia (DNB00)


HERSCHEL, CAROLINE LUCRETIA (1750–1848), astronomer, eighth child and fourth daughter of Isaac Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen, was born at Hanover on 16 March 1750. Her father's desire to educate his youngest daughter was thwarted by his wife's determination to keep her to household drudgery. He gave her a few surreptitious violin lessons, by which she was enabled to take part in his pupils' concerts. She had no other accomplishment, except knitting. She roused herself from the ‘kind of stupefaction’ caused by her father's death on 22 March 1767 to learn dressmaking, in order to earn her bread. She also attempted to qualify herself for a governess by practising fancy work in hours spared from sleep, though finding it ‘sometimes scarcely possible to get through the work required’ by her mother. Her brother William [q. v.], to whom she was from the first enthusiastically attached, now offered her a home at Bath, and she prepared herself for singing at concerts by imitating the violin parts of concertos with a gag between her teeth. In this way she ‘gained a tolerable execution’ before she attempted to sing. She reached Bath on 28 Aug. 1772.

Besides giving her two singing lessons daily, her brother taught her English and arithmetic; but her studies were from 1773 impeded by continual demands for aid in his astronomical pursuits. The summer of 1775 was ‘taken up with copying music and practising, besides attendance on my brother when polishing, since, by way of keeping him alive, I was constantly obliged to feed him by putting the victuals by bits into his mouth.’ Moreover, she read novels to him while he was at the turning-lathe or polishing mirrors, serving his meals without interrupting the work with which he was engaged, and sometimes lending a hand. ‘I became in time as useful a member of the workshop as a boy in the first year of his apprenticeship.’

Meanwhile, as a preparation for appearance in oratorios, she was being ‘drilled into a gentlewoman’ by a dancing-mistress; her brother presented her with ten guineas to buy a dress, and she was pronounced at her début ‘an ornament to the stage.’ Her success was considerable. As first treble in the ‘Messiah,’ ‘Judas Maccabæus,’ &c., she sang at Bath or Bristol sometimes five nights in the week, but declined an engagement for the Birmingham festival, having resolved to appear only where her brother conducted. Their last public performance was in St. Margaret's Chapel, Bath, on Whit-Sunday, 1782.

At first she grudged the abandonment of music in order to be ‘trained for an assistant-astronomer.’ She began ‘sweeping’ on her own account with a small Newtonian reflector on 22 Aug. 1782 at Datchet, and in the following year discovered three remarkable nebulæ, one of them the well-known companion to the Andromeda nebula (No. 105 of Sir J. Herschel's ‘General Catalogue’). From December 1783 she was absorbed in the arduous labour of assisting her brother. Her presence when he was observing was indispensable. She habitually worked with him till daybreak. She not only read the clocks and noted down his observations, but executed subsequently the whole of the extensive calculations involved. She brought the stars of the ‘British Catalogue’ into zones of one degree each for his ‘sweeps,’ copied his papers, and prepared his catalogues for the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ besides the occupations of housekeeping, needlework, and entertaining distinguished visitors. In her few leisure moments she ground and polished mirrors, and ‘was indulged with the last finishing of a very beautiful’ one for Sir William Watson.

Between 1786 and 1797 she discovered eight comets, five of them with undisputed priority. That of November 1795 was afterwards famous as ‘Encke's comet.’ Some of the data relative to them are still preserved in a packet inscribed by her ‘Bills and Receipts of my Comets.’ The faint object detected on 1 Aug. 1786 was looked at with curiosity by Miss Burney as ‘the first lady's comet.’ She described Miss Herschel as ‘very little, very gentle, very modest, and very ingenuous’ (Madame d'Arblay, Diary, iii. 442, ed. 1842). Mrs. Papendick, though less sympathetic, says that she was ‘a most excellent, kind-hearted creature’ (Journals, i. 253).

In 1787 a salary of 50l. a year, the first money which she thought herself free to spend to her own liking, was settled by the king upon Miss Herschel as her brother's assistant. After her brother's marriage, on 8 May 1788, she lived in lodgings, but co-operated with him no less zealously than before. The change, though bravely borne, cost her severe pangs. On 8 March 1798 her ‘Index to Flamsteed's Observations of the Fixed Stars’ was presented to the Royal Society, and was published at their expense with her list of ‘Errata’ to the same observations. The usefulness of a work which ‘contains a reference to every observation of every star in the British Catalogue’ was cordially acknowledged by Baily (Life of Flamsteed, pp. 388, 390).

In August 1799 Miss Herschel spent a week at the Royal Observatory, as the guest of Dr. Maskelyne; and from July to November 1800 she was at Bath, setting Alexander Herschel's house in order. Her youngest brother, Dietrich, came to England in broken health in 1805, and she was much tried for the next four years by adding care for him to her other occupations. Miss Herschel was present at royal fêtes at Frogmore in 1816 and 1817, and saw much of the Princess Sophia in the autumn of 1818. From 1819 her brother William's health caused her much anxiety. She assisted him in observing for the last time on 21 June 1821, and in the impetuosity of her grief for his death on 25 Aug. 1822, she carried out a hasty resolution to spend the remainder of her life with her relations in Hanover.

She regretted too late having ‘given herself and all she was worth’ to the German branch of her family, but would not ‘take back her promise.’ Her real interest was with Sir John Herschel's career, and she felt keenly the intellectual isolation to which she had condemned herself. Before quitting England she had made over to her brother Dietrich her little funded property of 500l.; and her extreme frugality allowed room for further generosity to her poorer relations out of an income of 150l. a year, of which 100l. was a bequest from her brother William. She nursed Dietrich Herschel at his house in the Marktstrasse until his death in 1827, and made a final move in 1833 to No. 376 Braunschweigerstrasse.

For her ‘Reduction and Arrangement in the Form of a Catalogue in Zones of all the Star Clusters and Nebulæ observed by Sir William Herschel’ she received the Astronomical Society's gold medal on 8 Feb. 1828 (Memoirs Royal Astr. Society, iii. 409), but was ‘more shocked than gratified’ by the distinction. This laborious work was styled by Sir David Brewster ‘an extraordinary monument of the inextinguishable ardour of a lady of seventy-five in the cause of abstract science.’ Although never published, it was the most valuable of her undertakings, because indispensable to Sir John Herschel's review of northern nebulæ. Miss Herschel was created an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835, and of the Royal Irish Academy in 1838. On the first occasion Mrs. Somerville transmitted to her a copy of ‘The Connexion of the Physical Sciences.’

Miss Herschel's later years were cheered by many attentions. All men of science passing through Hanover, among them Gauss, Humboldt, and Mädler, called to see her. The royal family showed her constant kindness, and she had a particular regard for the Duke of Cambridge. Until 1839 her tiny figure was rarely absent from the theatre, where she was pleased to be noticed as a celebrity; she never missed a concert, and recorded her delight with Catalani and Paganini. A visit from her nephew in October 1824 afforded her vivid pleasure. During his next visit in June 1832 he wrote of her, then in her eighty-third year: ‘She runs about the town with me, and skips up her two flights of stairs. In the morning, till eleven or twelve, she is dull and weary, but as the day advances she gains life, and is quite “fresh and funny” at ten o'clock p.m., and sings old rhymes, nay, even dances! to the great delight of all who see her.’ Her ninety-sixth birthday was marked by Humboldt's transmission to her, in the name of the king of Prussia, of the gold medal for science. On the succeeding anniversary she entertained the crown prince and princess with great animation for two hours, even singing to them a composition of her brother William. Her last letter was finished on 3 Dec. 1846, but she lived to hold in her hands, in her nephew's ‘Cape Observations,’ the completion of the great celestial survey in which she had borne a share. She passed away tranquilly on 9 Jan. 1848, in her ninety-eighth year, and was buried with her parents in the churchyard of the ‘Gartengemeinde’ at Hanover. Her coffin was, by command of the princess royal, adorned with palm-branches, and, at her own request, contained a lock of her ‘revered brother's’ hair; and the inscription on her tombstone, composed by herself, commemorated her ‘participation in his immortal labours.’

Caroline Herschel was absolutely without personal ambition, and jealous of her own praises lest they should seem to abate anything from her brother's merits. ‘I did nothing for him,’ she protested, ‘but what a well-trained puppy-dog would have done.’ ‘My only reason,’ she wrote to her nephew, ‘for saying so much of myself is to show with what miserable assistance your father made shift to obtain the means of exploring the heavens.’ Her commonplace-book, by its numerous entries of elementary problems in mathematics and astronomy, picked up from her brother at odd moments, proves the diligence with which she acquired the scanty outfit which her alert intelligence rendered effective. Although her memory remained excellent to the last, she records that she could never remember the multiplication table. Her portrait, painted by Tielemann in 1829, which she declared to ‘look like life itself,’ is in the possession of her grand-nephew, Sir William J. Herschel. An engraving from a later likeness, taken at the age of ninety-seven, forms the frontispiece to Mrs. John Herschel's ‘Memoir.’ The Newtonian seven-foot reflector, with which many of her discoveries had been made from the roof of the house at Slough, was presented in 1840 by her and Sir John Herschel jointly to the Royal Astronomical Society. Her gold medal, bequeathed to her grand-niece, Lady Gordon, was given by her to Girton College, Cambridge. Minor planet No. 281 was named ‘Lucretia’ in her honour by M. Palisa in 1889. The materials for her own and her brother's biographies are derived chiefly from her ‘Journals’ and ‘Recollections’ written at various periods, with a fragment of a ‘History of the Herschels’ begun in 1842.

[Mrs. John Herschel's Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel, London, 1876; Memoirs Royal Astronomical Soc. xvii. 120; Athenæum, 22 Jan. 1848 (‘Sir J. Herschel’); Revue Britannique, January 1848 p. 214, June 1876 p. 283.]

A. M. C.