Q&A with John Pipkin: Stellar finds from facts and family fragments of sibling astronomers
By Bridget Ground
The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter (Bloomsbury), a new novel by former Ransom Center fellow John Pipkin, offers readers a view into a world of scientific inquiry and political upheaval in late-eighteenth-century Ireland.
During his fellowship, Pipkin consulted the Ransom Center’s Herschel family papers, with a particular focus on Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750–1848). Caroline, a noted astronomer in her own right, was the sister of Sir William Herschel, discoverer of the planet Uranus. Pipkin’s research in the Herschel family papers informed his novel’s protagonist Caroline Ainsworth and the spirit of the age in which she lived.
On Tuesday, October 18, at 7 p.m., Pipkin will visit the Ransom Center to read from The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter and to discuss how his research at the Center influenced the novel. Materials from the Herschel family papers will be on view during the reception and book signing that follow.
How did you become interested in the story of the Herschel family?
Well, I’ve always been interested in astronomy. Maybe this has something to do with growing up during the final days of the space race; I was in kindergarten during the moon landings of Apollo 16 and 17 in 1972, and I still remember my father waking everyone early one morning in 1981 to watch the launch of the first space shuttle. But the experience that has stayed with me most vividly is the first time I looked at the stars, really looked at them, and felt overwhelmed by a sense of depth and distance, almost a vertiginous fear of falling upwards—I still get that feeling sometimes—and I have always wanted to try to capture that feeling in language. Years later, when I was studying the poets of the Romantic Period in college, it was John Keats’s sonnet, “On First Reading Chapman’s Homer” (1816) that made me think about the visceral connection between astronomy and art, specifically that way that Keats describes the sense of wonder surrounding William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus in 1781: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken…”
Today, we frequently hear news of astronomical discoveries, including planets orbiting distant stars, and even though each discovery is a wonder in itself, we’ve grown a little numb to these revelations to the point that it almost feels commonplace. But in 1781, William Herschel’s discovery marked the first time in the history of humankind that anyone had ever found a new planet—and he wasn’t even looking for it! It’s hard to imagine how mind-blowing that realization must have been; the discovery of Uranus essentially doubled the size of the known solar system overnight and issued in the era of modern astronomy by showing just how “deep” space really is. Aside from his accidental discovery of Uranus, William Herschel’s story—and the story of his family—is fascinating in itself. He was a self-taught, amateur astronomer from Hannover, Germany, making his living as a musician in Bath, England, after deserting the Prussian army at his father’s insistence. He wrote 24 symphonies and dozens of concertos in his role as the chief organist at the Octagon Chapel, and it was his fascination with musical structure that led to his interest in mathematics and optics. Eventually, he began making extensive sky surveys with reflecting telescopes that he had made himself, casting his own mirrors from a mixture of molten copper and tin in his home. William’s younger sister, Caroline Herschel, assisted him with his observations and she became an accomplished astronomer herself. Caroline Herschel was the first woman to be recognized for discovering a comet, and she found as many as eight new comets over the course of her life. She compiled hundreds of meticulous corrections to the British Catalogue of celestial objects, and she was the first woman to receive a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society and the first woman to be named an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society (along with Mary Somerville in 1835). Among their many accomplishments, William found new moons at Saturn and Uranus, drew one of the first maps of the Milky Way, discovered the infra-red spectrum, and designed what was then the largest telescope ever made—the Great Forty-Foot at Slough. His only son, John Herschel, also became a famous astronomer—traveling to South Africa to map the Southern Celestial Hemisphere—as well as a pioneer in optics, mathematics, chemistry, photography, botany, and linguistics.
How did your research at the Ransom Center change your thinking about the novel?
When I first began writing The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, the main story was only tangentially about astronomy, and William and Caroline Herschel were not yet characters in the narrative. I knew that I wanted to try to capture the sense of awe during the scientific revolution of the late-eighteenth century, set against the backdrop of the political and social upheaval of the period. Ireland and the Rebellion of 1798 were always central to the story, as was the fictional story of Caroline Ainsworth, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to incorporate the discovery of Uranus and the birth of modern astronomy. Looking back now, it sort of seems obvious that William and Caroline Herschel would be central to the novel, but at first I only thought of their story as an unwritten backstory to the main plot. I was struggling with the early manuscript when I came upon the report of a little-known forest fire accidentally started by Henry David Thoreau in 1844, and so I decided to put aside the draft of The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter to begin working on a new manuscript that would eventually become my first novel, Woodsburner.
After Woodsburner was published, I returned to that early manuscript, but I still hadn’t found the narrative core. And then one day I was visiting the Harry Ransom Center to view an exhibition on Edgar Allan Poe, and purely by chance I noticed a smaller exhibition in an adjacent area, featuring selected astronomical items from the Ransom Center’s archives. One of the items was a large painting of the moon by Caroline Herschel, and the tag indicated that it was from the Center’s collection of the Herschel family papers. I had always assumed that all of the primary documents related to the Herschel family were in England, at the British Library, or at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich; I had no idea that some of these papers might be right here in Austin. The collection proved to be a treasure trove of items: notebooks, diaries, letters, charts, drawings, and the journals of Caroline Herschel herself, in her own shaky handwriting, documenting her day-to-day activities. There were also folders and boxes full of random bits of paper—calling cards, envelopes, pages torn from notebooks, and even an old menu from a tea merchant—and all of these scraps were covered with hasty sketches of constellations and planetary orbits and scribbled mathematical calculations. These seemingly unimportant fragments hinted at the kind of frenetic activity surrounding the early days of astronomical observation, as well as the compulsion to write down thoughts and observations and calculations on whatever scraps of paper were readily at hand. Especially interesting was a collection of little cards, about the size of index cards, each divided into columns filled with measurements, and each tied with a loop of string. It’s easy to imagine these cards being hung within reach as quick reference guides for making calculations. (And, of course, it was also an amazing experience to hold physical objects that were actually used by William and Caroline Herschel over 200 years ago!) This was a wealth of factual information, but more importantly, from the perspective of writing fiction, the Ransom Center’s collection made it possible to re-imagine the personal, interior lives of these astronomers and to explore a dimension of their lives beyond astronomy. The holdings in the Ransom Center brought the brother and sister astronomers to life, as people, in a way that the factual details of a biography could not. After spending time among the materials that had actually passed through their hands, it was clear that William and Caroline Herschel would have to become characters in the novel, and I realized that I would need to scrap the old manuscript and begin writing again from the beginning. That was when everything finally began to fall into place.
Can you describe the relationship between Caroline Herschel and your novel’s character Caroline Ainsworth, both in terms of your research and as they coexist in The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter?
There are several thematic parallels and doublings that arise throughout the novel and give the narrative its structure. One of the goals of the novel is to explore the often-overlooked stories of the women who assisted in some of the greatest accomplishments and discoveries of the period, while also making important contributions of their own. Caroline Herschel is remarkable not only for what she achieved but also for what she overcame. Early in her life she suffered from typhus and several other childhood diseases that stunted her growth, left her face scarred, and her left eye damaged and disfigured. Her family assumed that she would never marry and her mother treated her like a servant in her own home until William rescued her, brought her to England, taught her music and mathematics, and trained her to be an astronomer. (At times, the true story of Caroline Herschel sounds like the stuff of fiction.) One of the strengths of fiction, though, especially historical fiction, is that it makes it possible to speculate on the seemingly insignificant circumstances that were necessary for great accomplishments to be realized. I’m much more interested in the history of “near-misses” than the stories of inevitable success. The fictional life of Caroline Ainsworth parallels that of Caroline Herschel in some ways, but in other ways it presents a counter-narrative, a speculative story about what happens when determination slips into obsession, about how the pursuit of discovery is often plagued by uncertainty and self-doubt, and about how success sometimes depends on random chance and accident. Like Caroline Herschel, the fictional Caroline Ainsworth also overcomes personal tragedies, but she doesn’t meet with the kinds of fortunate accidents that are so often necessary for success (or maybe she eventually does—I don’t want to say too much more than that or I might give away the story!). But one of the central themes of the novel is the unacknowledged importance of historical circumstance and the need to remain open to the advantages that can be found in random, unforeseen events.
What secondary sources did you consult for the novel and would you recommend to readers eager to learn more about the life and times represented within?
There are several excellent biographies and cultural histories about this period. Readers who want to know more about the interconnectedness of art and science during the Romantic Period definitely should read The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes. This is a brilliant and very accessible cultural history.
For more information about William and Caroline Herschel, there are quite a few biographies out there, but a good place to start is Michael Hoskin’s Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel and also Michael Lemonick’s The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos.
And anyone who wants to know more about the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which is the backdrop for much of the novel, should begin with the definitive history, The Year of Liberty: The History of the Great Irish Rebellion of 1798, by Thomas Pakenham.
How did your research for The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter compare to that for your previous novel, Woodsburner?
Well, I did a great deal more research for The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter than I did for Woodsburner. In terms of depth, the research for the two novels was comparable, but the research for The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter was certainly broader in scope. There are a number of reasons for this, due to content and structure. Thoreau’s forest fire began in the morning, and the people of Concord extinguished it later that evening, so Woodsburner takes place on a single day, although the story is interwoven with flashbacks to provide the backstories of the main characters. Thoreau’s own journals were the main source for much of the research that I did for Woodsburner, and since the main characters of that novel inhabit the same time and place, most of the narrative is an exploration of their interior development and their individual experiences of America in the 1840s. In contrast, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter spans almost a century in Ireland, England, and Scotland from the 1740s to the 1820s, a vibrant period during which social and political upheaval, and radically changing perspectives on science, art, literature, and philosophy gave rise to the modern world as we know it. So I spent a great deal of time researching those areas in order to recreate, hopefully, what it might have felt like to live through those tumultuous times. I also relied much more on visual material this time—etchings, maps, paintings, modern photographs of old astronomical devices, and so on—in order to help recreate the world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But one similarity shared by Woodsburner and The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter is that the research in each novel is secondary to the story and the characters. (As I edited the final manuscript, I actually cut out some of the more technical descriptions of astronomy and telescope-making because I felt that these details impeded the flow of the narrative, which is the primary focus of the novel as a form.) In writing fiction, I am much more concerned with trying to convey a sense of the human experience of inhabiting a specific time and place than I am with trying to convey a catalog of facts about the period. When I’m researching, I’m not just looking for information but for blank spaces and gaps in the historical record; this is where fiction breathes. Regardless of the historical period or the narrative context, the novel is always centered on the fundamental experiences of being human.
Pipkin’s fellowship at the Ransom Center was jointly supported by the C. P. Snow Memorial Fund and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment. Additional information about the Ransom Center’s fellowship program is available online. Each year the Ransom Center awards fellowships to more than 50 individuals pursuing research projects that require use of the Center’s collections.