Caroline Herschel

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Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750-1848) was a German-born astronomer who spent most of her working life in England. Born in Hanover in a family with a strong musical background, she had herself a great talent as a singer but her early life was dominated by domestic duties. In 1772, however, her brother Friedrich Wilhelm (1738-1822; generally known as Sir William Herschel) took her to England to act as his housekeeper; he had migrated several years previously and had established himself in a respectable musical position in Bath. William had also developed a passion for astronomy, and Caroline proved to be a dedicated helpmeet in this; during 1773 she worked with Wilhelm on the building of his first reflecting telescope, helping in the casting and polishing of the speculum (concave mirror) - a skill which, in The Mauritius Command, she is represented as passing on to Jack Aubrey. For some years Caroline also seemed to be developing a career of her own as a concert singer, but after 1778 her work with William absorbed all her attention.

In 1781 William identified a new heavenly body, soon afterwards recognised as a planet, the first to be added to the solar system since ancient times; it was later named Uranus. This established his reputation as an astronomer, and in the following year he was offered a post by King George III which entailed his moving to Datchet, near the royal residence at Windsor. Caroline accompanied him there and continued to share in his labours; from 1783 onwards she gradually built up a scientific reputation of her own, eventually discovering eight comets as well as making great improvements in the catalogue of stars originally compiled by John Flamsteed. She suffered a blow in 1788 when William's marriage to a wealthy widow robbed her of her place at the head of his household, but eventually she developed a warm relationship with William's son John, himself an outstanding scientist. On William's death Caroline returned to Hanover, but she retained her interest in astronomy and was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828, followed by honorary membership seven years later. She remained alert and active to the last and was a constant attendant at musical events.

Caroline Herschel was a small woman who suffered in youth from the disfiguring effects of smallpox as well as typhus fever, but her correspondence (edited by her niece in 1869) and journals show that she never lost her courage or her sense of humour.

In the Canon

In Chapter 1 of The Mauritius Command, Jack Aubrey pays enthusiastic tribute to Caroline, who has taught him how to grind the reflector of his telescope and often spends many hours of the night with him in his home-made observatory - much to the discomfiture of Sophie.

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