The Stargazer’s Sister is a true story, based on the lives of William and Lina Herschel, two astronomers whose discoveries led to major breakthroughs in the 19th century. William was convinced space contained more than could be shown up to that moment, he convinced sceptical scientists through the discovery of new stars and planets. In order to do that the average telescope did not suffice. He struggled hard to be able to build larger, self-designed telescopes. In those days not just a matter of perseverance but also of physical labour, begging for funds and knowledge of materials. Williams’perseverance bordered on fanaticism. Lina was his partner in crime. Though it never can be proven, one does wonder whether it could not have been the other way around in this day and time.
Brown has added personal elements to what is known about the Herschels. Lina’s unhappy childhood determined by an unloving mother and sickness, the people the Herschels worked with, their friends, Lina’s lover when she has given up all hope. Brown has written the novel from the point of view of Lina, who dotes on her big brother and supports him all the way up to and including feeding him while is scanning space for evidence. At times she realizes he does take her for granted; her insecurity makes her accept this. He is the formidable older brother who has saved her from a life with her mean mother. She is the ugly woman who should be thankful she is given the opportunity to dedicate her life to the stars.
Brown shows us chances for women to become scientists were practically non-existing in the 19th century. Since Lina will not marry (far too ugly), she can spend her life in her way to science, an education at university would have been unheard of. Lina’s quick intelligence, the way she grasps new concepts suggests that she is equal to her brother in intelligence, though unfortunately not in gender. One might rightly wonder how far William would have gotten if it had not been for Lina’s steadfast support. It hurts to read about her insecurity both as a scientist as a woman, giving up all hope of a married life.
The Stargazer’s Sister is at times written beautifully, at times tapers off in enumerations. Brown moreover does not manage to make Lina come to life. We are given an insight in her entire life, which spans almost a century, Brown fails to have Lina develop from a young girl to an old woman, fizzling out in platitudes. William is a platitude from start to end, living for science not noticing that his younger sister is not just a brain but also a sensitive person. The Stargazer’s Sister allows us a beautiful insight into the dedication of two scientist, it lacks insight into their personalities.