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Was astronomer Caroline Herschel’s success down to extreme politeness?


Caroline Herschel was born in the mid-eighteenth-century, the youngest daughter in a poor, Germanic musical family. By rights, she should have grown old cooking, cleaning and mending in the home of one of her many siblings. But she didn’t. 

She became an astronomer, assisting her brother William, discovering comets of her own, getting paid for her work, and becoming the first woman to have her scientific work published in the prestigious (and at the time only) British scientific journal, The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

How did this small (she was 4ft 3in), timid, undereducated, “ashenbröthe” (Cinderella) make such a big splash in the scientific world of her day? Curiously one clue to her success can be found in a portrait of her and her brother made years after they were both dead. This portrait shows William hard at work polishing a mirror for one of his iconic, world famous telescopes. Surrounding the pair are various pieces of astronomical equipment, visually telling the history of that subject up to the time of the Herschels. And there, by her brother’s side, her eyes down cast, is Caroline, meekly proffering a cup of tea to her industrious brother.

This image was made in 1896, nearly 50 years after Caroline died and over 100 years since she discovered her first comet, and published her first paper, but it shows the way she chose to let the world see her. In each announcement of a newly discovered comet, each response to a flattering letter by a fellow astronomer, Caroline carefully, politely presented this image of quiet, invisible helper. She offered her comets to the astronomical world not for fame or recognition, but “for the sake of astronomy”. She did not seek publication yet found the prospect “flattered my vanity not a little”. She did not hope to gain anything by fostering friendships with important astronomers, yet did not want “to be thought neglectful”.

Yet for all that, there was a fighting, ambitious, critical woman hiding beneath this facade. She knew she would not be taken seriously if she presented her claims like a man, with confidence and certainty. If life had taught her anything, and life as a performing musician in particular, it was that appearances mattered. For 10 years, between 1787 and 1797 Caroline went from provincial singer to world famous astronomer. These were her most productive years; they are also her most mysterious. For reasons never satisfactorily explained, Caroline destroyed her diaries for all 10 of these years. What might they have contained? Could the answer lie in the maintenance of Caroline’s very carefully crafted image of extreme politeness?

By Emily Winterburn

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