Littell's Living Age/Volume 128/Issue 1659/Caroline Herschel

From Temple Bar.


When Caroline Lucretia Herschel was already an aged woman, living in the exile from England to which she had committed herself after the death of her beloved brother, under the idea that she should not long survive him, she began to write down her recollections, — "A little History of her Life from 1772-1788." She wrote them for her nephew, the son of Sir William Herschel, that he might know something of his excellent grandparents, and also understand the innumerable difficulties which his father had surmounted in his life and labours. It was not to tell of herself, but of others, that she wrote these "Recollections," and it was with diffidence that she sent them to the one person whom she believed would care to read them.

"You must," she writes, "excuse your old aunt, who can only think of what is past, forgetting the present."

Sir John Herschel valued these memorials, and they are carefully preserved in the family along with her letters. But Caroline Herschel would have been very much surprised, and not a little angry, if she could have foreseen that her letters and recollections would ever have been printed, or that a book about herself would ever have been put together.

Writing once to the wife of her nephew, Sir John Herschel, she says, — "I have something to remark about what you call my letters, which were to be deposited in the letter-case. I was in hopes you would have thrown away such incoherent stuff, as I generally write in a hurry, when I am sick for want of knowing how it looks at home [as she always called England], and not let it rise up in judgment against my perhaps bad grammar and bad spelling, etc.; for to the very last I must feel myself walking on uncertain ground, having been obliged to learn too much, without anything thoroughly."

Entire unconsciousness of any worth or merit in herself was one of her remarkable characteristics.

She was endowed with a royal instinct for serving others to the utmost of her powers, doing this as a simple matter of course, feeling only that all she could do was much less than what was needed. This sense of shortcoming was a constant source of regret, and effectually checked all emotions of self-complacency. The one ruling idea that governed her whole life was to work wherever she was placed and to obey those in authority over her. The daughter of a soldier, the spirit of discipline was born with her.

Her obedience, however, was not from constraint, or a feeling of servitude, — she willingly offered herself for the service of those who had a claim upon her services, and her sympathy with whatever work she had in hand gave to all she did the freedom which works from love. From early childhood she took on herself the weight of the family cares and anxieties which she only dimly comprehended, but which she felt, because they troubled her parents. This love of being helpful gave a dignity to the heavy drudgery of being maid-of-all-work to the family. She always obediently did her best — even when, as she records, "she got many a whipping" for not being able to clean the knives and forks with brick-dust, or to wait at table so as to please the lordly eldest brother Jacob. She evidently had a contempt for him which she was too well trained in subordination to express, and a hearty detestation which is sufficiently conveyed to the reader without the help of words. But all the same, when, after the father's death, he became head of the family, she never failed in paying him due obedience; and when in later years, after everything had been arranged for her to accompany her beloved William to England, and Jacob was at the last accidentally detained in another place, she mentions with regret having to depart without the formal consent of her eldest brother.

It was her deep power of sympathy with those she loved that weighed down the natural gladness of childhood. One can scarcely read without tears in one's eyes, of the little act by which she won a smile from her mother at a moment when she was overwhelmed with the parting from her husband and sons, who had just left to join the army; the little Caroline seeing a neckerchief that her father had worn hang over a chair, took it, and putting one end in her mother's hand, took the other herself, and sat down at her feet. But the deep well spring of love and self-devotion which lay in the heart of Caroline Herschel never went forth from its inmost depths, except towards her brother William. Her whole life and being were given to him, and throughout the record she gives of the period whilst they were together, he seems to have been entirely worthy of her love. The incidental light thrown upon his character by his sister's memoirs, reveals a nature so noble, that his grandest discoveries and great achievements in science, seem only the natural growth and outcome of the nobler inner life from which they sprung.

The change from the life at Hanover to the life at Bath was like the transformation scene in a pantomime. The little maid-of-all-work, who had been allowed no education by her mother, lest it should unfit her for household duties, who had been permitted to receive a lesson in music from her father only "when her mother was in a good humour or out of the way," was taken to Bath and told she was to prepare herself for taking part in public concerts and oratorios! She had lessons in music and singing twice a day, and was put under "Miss Flemming, the famous dancing-mistress," to be drilled to move like a lady; she had ten guineas presented by her brother to buy a suitable dress; Mr. Palmer, the manager of the theatre, told her she was an ornament to the stage: the Marchioness of Lothian and other great ladies complimented her on pronouncing her words like an Englishwoman!

In a wonderfully short time she was able to take the leading parts in oratorios and concerts, and even received the offer of an engagement at the Birmingham Festival. But she refused to appear anywhere, unless her brother William was the conductor. She had no wish to be anything for herself. All her life she had been in an atmosphere of music; her father was a bandmaster, and a fine musician; her brother William was an eminent composer and musician, who if he had not become an astronomer would have been remembered as a musician; her brother Alexander, who had come to England with William, and who lived with him, was also an excellent musician. But Caroline Herschel had never before received any regular instruction: it was the spirit of willing obedience, and the well-trained habit of doing exactly as she was told, that enabled her to perform what seem almost like miracles.

Her life at Bath seems to have been very happy, in spite of house-keeping difficulties and the perplexing difference betwixt housekeeping in Hanover and housekeeping in England, the extravagance of which distressed her sense of thrift; but there was more money to go upon, for her brother William was making a handsome income by his concerts and compositions, as well as by teaching.

Another transformation was, however, in store. The love of music in William Herschel was only second to his love of science. He had already begun to invent wonderful instruments for observing and measuring the distances of stars, etc.; more and more time was gradually taken from music to be devoted to astronomy. Caroline was quietly expected to assist him. She had to learn, as well as she could, the mysteries of logarithms, calculations how to compute distances and how to reduce sidereal time into mean time, and other things still more abstruse, which, to one unlearned, sound more like making incantations than anything else. Caroline Herschel learned to do all this, and more. In a letter, written long years after, she says, "My dear brother William was my only teacher, and we began generally with what we should have ended, he supposing I knew all that went before: and perhaps I might have done so once, but my memory he used to compare with sand, in which everything could be inscribed, but as easily effaced." It was only at odd times, and at meals, that she was able to obtain even this fragmentary instruction. She owns to never having been able to say the multiplication-table, but carrying a copy in her pocket for reference. Her industry and truly German perseverance carried her through these seemingly impossible tasks. The second brother, Alexander Herschel, a man of rare gifts, both as a musician and mechanician, was a very efficient assistant to his brother, but he was not endowed with patience, and could not bear to be kept long confined to the same occupation. It was, therefore, to Caroline that her brother turned for help in the construction of the tools and woodwork for grinding and polishing lenses and mirrors, etc. It was she who made the pasteboard tube that was to hold the first large mirror, and the dexterity of her fingers, and the desire to be useful, which, as a little child, helped her to make "bags and sword-knots," made her now, as she expresses it, "almost as useful as a boy in the first year of his apprenticeship."

In all these things it was the loving sympathy with all his aspirations and efforts that gave a subtle virtue to the actual mechanical aid she afforded. She desired nothing for herself; she would be nothing of herself; all her life flowed into his life, nourishing it, and strengthening his heart under all disappointments and difficulties. She never tired, but kept pace with him in all his work, standing beside him day and night, both of them working as though bodily needs or material comforts did not exist. She never failed him. After a time, when she was set "to mind the heavens," and began to taste the delights of discovery with her "Newtonian sweeper," she laid it aside, having time for no more than three or four opportunities to use it in the course of as many months, in order not to neglect her brother's work. This consisted chiefly in doing endless sums and acting as his secretary, noting down all he saw in his sweeps, standing by him through winter nights when the very ink froze in her pen. As before in music, so now in astronomy, she refused to be anything but her brother's helper. Throughout her life her one word was, "All I am, all I know, I owe to him. I am only the tool he fashioned. I did no more for him than a well-trained puppy-dog might have done." Long afterwards when, in very advanced life, she received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, and was elected an honorary member, she energetically deprecated all mention of herself, because whatever was said in praise of her took away what ought to be given to her brother.[2]

What Caroline Herschel felt and thought when her adored brother took a wife nobody ever heard or knew. She seems to have confided her feelings to her diaries alone, and those she destroyed.

It was a shock and a trial, sharper most likely than even that caused in after years by his death, because it was mingled with more purely personal jealousy and bitterness. What it must have been to see another woman promoted to have the sole right of caring for his comfort and of ministering to his wants, after the many years she had lived for nothing else, must have been terribly hard to bear. Even the fact that his wife brought him an ample fortune, setting him free from all need to beg from government for the small sums needed to carry on his work, was only an additional aggravation. How to keep down household expenses had been one of Caroline Herschel's hardest problems; and the little addition she had been to his expenditure — not ever more than seven or eight pounds a year — had been always a source of regret, which no amount of work done for him could make her feel that she had earned.

And now he was going to be rich, he would need her care and thrift no longer, and it was the woman whom he had preferred before her, who was to have the happiness of freeing him for life from all anxiety about money matters! It was a very bitter trial, and although she has not left on record anything she said, what she did is painfully significant — she "gave up her place as housekeeper," and went to "lodge with Sprat, one of her brother's workmen," whose wife was to wait on her. She only reserved to herself the right of access to the roof of her brother's house (which was the observatory), and to the work-room. Here she came to work every day, "returning home for her meals."

Doubtless she was not the only one of the three who was unhappy.

In a letter, long afterwards, to her nephew, she mentions that when her brother "was about to enter on the married state," he had wished to make her independent, which she entirely refused, but requested him to ask for some small salary for her as his assistant. This he did, and obtained the promise of fifty pounds a year. She not only prepared to live but to save out of it for her relations at Hanover. The incidental mention of her numerous changes of abode, give us a glimpse of comfortless lodgings and of the long distances she had to go in all weathers to and from her work, till health and strength alike failed under the additional strain. But there is not one word of complaint. She continued obdurate, accepting nothing from the new comer. How and when she began to soften we are not told, but in one of her letters in after life she says that when her salary "had fallen nine quarters in arrears" her brother and Lady Herschel insisted that she should receive from them the sum of ten pounds a quarter. The birth of her nephew and his early promise, so splendidly fulfilled, of becoming in all respects worthy of his father, helped to heal and to fill her wounded heart. By degrees she was won to love her brother's wife, and after his death she addresses her as the "dear sister I now feel you to be," and Caroline Herschel was a sister worth winning. For some years before her brothers death they became firm friends, and whenever Lady Herschel was from home, Caroline went to be with her brother and to take care of him as of old; her labours had never been remitted, the work was a bond between them that had never been loosened.

The death of her beloved brother in 1822 was a sorrow that dislocated the remainder of her life. Broken as she was by fatigue and overwork, she believed and hoped she should not long survive him, and under the shock of her great grief she took a step which she regretted only once, but that was always — she was obstinately bent on returning to Hanover to reside for the rest of her days. To make her determination irrevocable, she made a gift of all she possessed to her youngest brother Dietrich and promised to take up her abode henceforth under his roof. Next to William he had been her favourite, and much of the motherliness of her nature had come out towards him; from the time she had nursed him as a baby in the cradle to the time when, after he had run away from home, he had been found sick and destitute at a lodging in Wapping and had been brought back to health by her "on a diet of roasted apples and barley water," and when later, he had come to her "broken in health, spirit, and fortune," she had always been the one to comfort and help him. He had possessed much of the musical talents of the family, and had given promise of becoming an eminent performer on the violin, but he seems never to have done much good; his sister clung to him, however, and believed in him as a man capable of advising her on all matters of business. To Dietrich she committed herself when all her happiness and hope in life went down in her brother's grave.

Everything seems to have been said and done that was possible to induce her to remain in England with those who loved her and knew her value, and amongst the friends she had made in the scientific world, but all was in vain. Dietrich came from Hanover to fetch her, and she returned with him.

From the day of her departure to the day of her death she never ceased to regret what she had done, and, what was more, she owned her mistake. For fifty years she had lived in constant intercourse with men of the highest rank in science; she had spent her whole time in assisting and sharing in the grandest astronomical discoveries, not minding meaner things. In old age she returned to the city where she was born, expecting, to find amongst the relations who had grown up in her absence, as many estimable persons as there were individuals. She found instead, that she was unfitted for their society as they were for hers. While she "had been minding the heavens," they had lived in narrow streets and in a narrow range of interests; she had revered and understood her brother's worth; they who had never known him, felt only a gratified vanity in owning so distinguished a relative. Shut up in a room whence she could not "see an entire constellation," nor scarcely a star; homesick, after the dear ones she had left; lonely among her stranger kinsfolk; pestered by the interference and pretentiousness of her brother Dietrich, whose faith in his sister's superiority had been altogether destroyed by the course she had taken in giving him all she possessed and making him her adviser, she found herself very unhappy indeed.

But more bitter than any personal disappointment was the consciousness which after a while made itself felt, that she had thrown up work while she had still the strength to do it; that she was letting talents which would have been useful to her brother's son rust in disuse. This was what gave bitterness to her regret: there is no remorse like that caused by the sense of talents unemployed. It was not the deficiencies or stupidities of those she had come to dwell amongst that caused Caroline Herschel to become bitter in her complaints, the fault lay in herself, and she knew it: she believed it was too late to return, and bent herself to endure and to await the end, which seemed as though it would never arrive. Lady Herschel, her nephew, and her nephew's wife, when he took one, kept up a close and affectionate correspondence.

She saw her nephew grow up to be worthy of his father, and his reputation to be as brilliant.

Her nephew made several journeys to see her, and brought with him his eldest son on one occasion.

She lived in great comfort, for the annuity left by her brother of a hundred a year was affluence.

Celebrated men came to pay their respects to her.

Her own attainments and labours were recognized and honoured.

She had troops of friends, from royalty downwards, who all delighted to show her honour.

Kindness and tenderness she received from them abundantly.

Amongst her own kindred there were those who loved her and showed her unremitting kindness when the days of darkness came, and her infirmities were heavier than she could bear; but the mistake she had made in quitting England remained a mistake to the end.

Her letters and journals depict her life with a simplicity and reality that no one on the outside could give; and if the readers of them feel some of the love and admiration with which they have inspired me, they will feel that in Caroline Lucretia Herschel they have found a friend.

  1. The interesting Memoir and Correspondence of this Sister of Sir William and Aunt of Sir John Herschel are just published by Mr. Murray. — Ed.
  2. The medal was awarded for her valuable work, "The Reduction and Arrangement, in the form of a Catalogue, in Zones, of all the Star-Clusters in Nebulæ observed by Sir William Herschel in his Sweeps."