Before Christmas, I was almost regretting my decision to make Caroline the focus of STELLA, my new play – so frustrated was I with the “meek devotion to her brother” angle preferred by many historians.  Then it dawned on me – to go directly to the source material. So I buried myself in the two autobiographies, admittedly with some reservations, having discovered that she had completed her journals in her nineties! After all memory is a funny thing!! Moreover unlike the wonderfully candid diary of Samuel Pepys, not intended for posterity, Caroline’s account was primarily a gift to the adoring family of her brother.  

Nonetheless, I found a cocktail of rueful humour, anger [still bubbling after half a decade] and – yes – love [I am struck by the similarity between the story of the Herschel siblings and that other famous brother and sister partnership – the Wordsworths].  For me – two factors seem to dominate the “story”: Caroline’s destruction of nine years worth of diary papers [from 8th May 1787, the date of William’s marriage] and her own considerable genius.

Yet Caroline arrived in England from Hanover with only a few words of English and minimal education, leaving behind a widowed mother and a dodgy eldest brother who had both blatantly – and with some cruelty – suppressed any opportunity that might have presented itself to her…

William did rightly earn himself the mantle of heroic saviour: in 1772, he unceremoniously whisked Caroline away with him to England, thus rescuing her from a life of abusive servitude and gaining that “devoted” housekeeper and keen musical apprentice. For this – history must thank him!

During my research, I came across Mary Wollstonecraft’s acid comment on sexual inequality “women are not inferior to men, they just appear so because they lack education” and that now seems particularly pertinent to Caroline [I like to imagine these two women meeting up for tea during the 1770’s when coincidentally they both lived in Bath].

Certainly Miss Herschel learnt fast!! Within five years, she had mastered a new language albeit with an accent, learnt mathematics [essential for her housekeeping accounts] and had acquired serious administration skills whereby she was able to facilitate William’s career as composer, conductor and music teacher;

As if this assimilation into Bath culture wasn’t enough, William’s Pygmalion had also transformed into a professional singer, talented enough to sing principal soprano solos in Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus and The Messiah. She garnered much praise and – significantly – the offer of further engagements which would have undoubtedly set her up as an independent “useful member of the musical profession”. So why did she refuse such an offer when it was all she had ever hoped for?

As a theatre maker, I have to make strong – sometimes contentious – choices: if Caroline had left the Bath household who would have lost in a quadruple whammy his housekeeper, his all important administrator, his teaching assistant and …… his budding astronomical assistant? Caroline had become indispensable to his frenetic lifestyle! I am not suggesting that William forbade her departure, rather more I imagine far more gently persuasive, [dare I say – manipulative?] tactics.  For this, history must thank William again: the music profession’s loss was – as we know – astronomy’s gain!

What strikes me most about Caroline’s talent for sight reading the sky is strangely not the dramatic discovery of numerous nebulae and her eight comets. Rather more, I am moved by the intention behind her rigorous and laborious improvements to Flamsteed’s star chart and indeed her own two catalogues. By organising stars and nebulae into zones, by assigning coordinates to both, she was tirelessly facilitating the discoveries of not only her fellow astronomers but the scientific community of the future.

Caroline achieved so much in a society that forbade women political representation and yet truly I don’t believe she deemed her life to be fulfilled. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth, she struggled to find and secure her place in the world. That must have seemed hugely ironic to a perceptive astronomer who could precisely determine her own place in the universe! But then eighty two years after full female emancipation, we all still struggle to achieve that cosmic balancing act of Life and Love.

Portrait of Caroline Herschel
  • Mike W

    I learnt about Caroline on a visit to the Herschel museum in Bath a few years ago. I think she is a truly amazing person: not just a role model for women, but to be held up as an inspiration to all people.

  • In case anyone is interested to learn more about Caroline and William Herschel, I’d strongly recommend Richard Holmes’ book “The Age of Wonder”.

  • siobhan nicholas

    The Age Of Wonder is a fabulous book but I also really liked Claire Brock’s The Comet Sweeper –  a thoughtful, detailed and philosophic book that places Caroline in context. Michael Lemonick’s The Georgian Star helped me to grasp some of the astronomical theory [I owe him thanks!] 

  • Anonymous

    Hi Siobhan – I love your comparison to other historical women .. you’re improving my knowledge of history and many other aspects of life with your plays and theatre making.  Good luck with moving the play on and bringing it to life on the stage for us to see.  Cheers Hilary