From The Quarterly Review.
In the early part of the seventeenth century there was a great persecution of the Protestants in Moravia. Among those who fled from their homes during the evil days were three brothers named Herschel, who became possessed of land in Saxony, and settled there. One of the brothers established himself as a brewer at Pirna, near Dresden. Abraham Herschel, the son of the Pirna brewer, was landscape-gardener to the king, and obtained considerable reputation by his skill and taste in his profession. Isaac Herschel, Abraham's third and youngest son, was born in 1707. Declining to follow the profession of a gardener to which he was destined, the young man resolved to devote himself to music, and became a hautboy-player in the Hanoverian Royal Guard. At an early age Isaac married, and settled in Hanover, where he had a large family, two of which were William—afterwards the great astronomer, "whose name is so familiar to English ears—and Caroline, the subject of the present memoir.
The fame of Sir William Herschel as an astronomer is perhaps second only to that of Sir Isaac Newton; but few are aware how greatly he was indebted to his sister. For forty years, from the time when he first commenced his career of astronomical discovery until the grave closed over him, Caroline Herschel never quitted him. She was his trusted assistant; it was she who performed the vast and complicated numerical calculations that made his observations available to science; she was his amanuensis, and, till he married late in life, his housekeeper. It was she who converted his rough notes into lucid papers to be read before learned societies; she did for him an amount of labour which filled those who were in the secret with amazement; she served him with a great and unwearied love, content to stand aside and claim no share in the credit of all the great works he performed. It is hard to find a parallel to the entire self-abnegation with which she gave up all the energies of her mind and body to him.
The volume now before us brings the life of this very remarkable lady for the first time before the general reader. It is in many respects extremely entertaining; it is full of racy extracts from her letters and journals. We make acquaintance with a very original mind; we learn to admire a very warm-hearted woman, full of prejudices and oddities, but. with an absence of selfishness as charming as it is uncommon. But we cannot help regretting that the authoress did not extend her plan, and that the opportunity has been lost of making us better acquainted with Sir William Herschel. No life of that great astronomer has been written, and we should have been well pleased if the publication of the present memoir had been made the occasion of remedying the defect. It would have been easy for the authoress to satisfy the not ungraceful curiosity of the world respecting the life of her distinguished ancestor; but the memoir adds but little to our knowledge of him. Those who are acquainted with the scattered notices of his life may sometimes see, in a chance phrase of Miss Herschel, the correction of a mistake, or a hint which may make clear some hitherto doubtful point; and to those who know Sir William Herschel's work the present volume is like a personal introduction to the workman. But the general reader cannot fairly be expected to possess this knowledge. Nowhere throughout the book are we told the meaning of the astronomical activity in which the brother and sister passed their lives. We cannot be expected to care much about mere hard work apart from sympathy with its object; and even intellectual toil is uninteresting unless we are allowed to share the hopes and fears of the labourers. We hear of Sir William Herschel grinding for sixteen hours at a stretch at one of his telescope mirrors, and of Miss Herschel reading to him as he works, and putting food into his mouth by bits, while he continues his monotonous labour without removing his hands; but the anecdote is unmeaning
- 1. Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel. By Mrs. John Herschel. London, 1876.
2. Analyse historique et critique de la Vie et des Travaux de Sir William Herschel. Par M. Arago. Paris, in the "Annuaire du Bureau des Longitudes" for 1842.