What Does Science Owe to Wonder?

Caspar David Friedrich, “Two Men Contemplating the Moon,” ca. 1825-30. Oil on canvas. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Richard Holmes designates the “Romantic Age of Science” as The Age of Wonder, but what of wonder before the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? For over two thousand years before Holmes’ “Romantic generation,” Pagan then Christian thinkers viewed wonder as the starting point of philosophy. Ancient through enlightenment-era natural philosophers underscored wonder as integral to the advancement of knowledge.Aristotle’s Metaphysics articulated the wonder to knowledge paradigm, or admiratio toscientia, as the result of human curiosity. For Aristotle, this natural “desire to know” and philosophize dated back to (and was in fact “owing to”) the earliest philosophers’ state of wonder. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this classical admiratioscientiaparadigm served as the scientific mantra for, among other philosophers, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Malebranche, and Vico. In The Age of Wonder Holmes elides these more contemporary views of wonder and curiosity as essential for the close attention necessary to advance knowledge and instead ties the classics with the romantics. He cites Plato by way of Coleridge and describes wonder’s effect on the passions and intellect by way of Wordsworth.

Holmes paints the Romantic Age of Science as the second scientific revolution (following Coleridge’s 1819 Philosophical Lectures), one that hearkens “a new vision” or “a new notion of a popular science, a people’s science” as opposed to “the scientific revolution of the late seventeenth century … an essentially private, elitist, specialist form of knowledge” (xix). Likewise, Holmes suggests a new vision of wonder. This Romantic wonder integrates eighteenth-century concepts of the sublime, as when the book’s subtitle, “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science” unites the duality of wonder-provoked delight and dread. This wonder unites subjectivity and objectivity to inspire science, or knowledge, by impacting “the heart as well as the mind” (xx). But in fact, this “new” age of wonder reiterates ancient, early modern, modern, and postmodern perceptions of wonder.

The greatest novelty of Holmes’ “age of wonder” belongs to its redirect from religious awe. It is this secular wonder that inspires the “new” notion of popular science he describes as the second scientific revolution. Instead of citing Plato first by way of his student Aristotle and next by way of St. Thomas Aquinas, Holmes separates wonder from Christianity. The thirteenth-century Church Father, Aquinas evoked the opening words of Aristotle’s Metaphysics in order to underscore wonder’s pious usefulness (or utilitas). Effectively Christianizing Plato and Aristotle’s classic admiratioscientia paradigm, Aquinas’ wonder lead souls to knowledge of God. Thus before Holmes’ second, popular and secular scientific revolution, wonder served both scientific and evangelical functions in human hearts and minds. For example, Catholic Jesuits evoked wonder (admiratio) to inspire knowledge of nature (scientia) as well as knowledge of the Author of all nature (Scientia). Scientific progress could serve “the greater glory of God” (following the Jesuit slogan ad majorem Dei gloriam) and increase human piety. This brand of Christian wonder helped distance impiety from curiosity and greatly benefitted the “first” scientific revolution. For example, Francis Bacon encouraged the contemplation of God’s works to produce knowledge and articulated the Christianized admiratioscientiaparadigm when he evoked wonder as the “seed of knowledge.”

Although certainly more secular, Holmes’ nineteenth-century “age of wonder” depends on the early modern period of European Empires, when human revelation was allowed to round out that which was divinely revealed and the original warnings against vain, human curiosity by the Church were replaced by the very pious quests for knowledge that spawned that first Western “scientific revolution.” During the fifteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries, wonder and knowledge served Christianity. One of the greatest legacies of the Romantic Age which Holmes describes has been the separation of science and religion in both academic and popular discourses. Twenty-first century scientists shy away from extolling the role of wonder (admiratio) as an impetus for knowledge (scientia) that also encourages sacred awe toward the Christian God (Admiratio). Today science tries to resist being labeled superstitious as evolutionists debate creationists and “intelligent design” replaces the language of God as the primary cause of any secondary causes revealed by physics. Throughout all ages, however, wonder (admiratio) has inspired knowledge (scientia): both science to increase piety and science “for its own sake.”

Holmes’ Mad, Romantic Germans

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick (1964) © Columbia Pictures

The archetype of German mad scientist continues to evoke fascination and wonder. In the twentieth century the early cinematic portrayal of the mad scientist from Fritz Lang’s Rotwang in Metropolis and Robert Wiene’s Dr. Caligeri in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligeri, contributed to the grounding of the mad scientist in German or in the least the eastern Habsburg lands. If there is a scientist whose determination is maniacal and his character defined by severe megalomania, the character’s ability to evoke fear, loathing, and often enigmatic sympathy increases the more German he is. The German scientist became such a stock character its subsequent ridicule was inevitable. A review of several parodies of mad scientists in 20th century pop culture reveals the overwhelming majority to be German or have at least Germanic sounding names. The Rocky Horror Picture Showwith Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein, and Dr. Strangelove (originally Merkwürdigliebe) from Kubric’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and even cartoons such as Dr. Doofenschmirtz in “Phineas and Ferb” all satirize the Germanic crazed scientist, possibly discharging real latent fears and stereotypes about German genius that harken back to the Faust chapbooks from the 16th century, and certainly from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Undoubtedly Shelley’s Germanic scientist (actually a Swiss student from the French speaking region near Geneva) ushered in a new theatrical Germanic archetype that tended to identify irresponsible but awe-inspiring science and ungodly knowledge within the Anglo-American cultural consciousness as German in nature.

After looking at Holmes’ study of Mary Shelley’s novel, I would argue his own analysis is influenced by this Anglo cultural bias. The chapter “Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul” presents a captivating overview of the scientific discoveries and philosophical trends from the early nineteenth century and argues these debates and discoveries kindled the narrative of Mary Shelley’s famous novel Frankenstein. In particular, he focuses on the vitalist debate surrounding discoveries like galvanism, the voltaic battery, and animal magnetism, which he then argues finds particular philosophical influence and scientific expression in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie and Johann Ritter’s experiments in Germany. Due to the fact these two figures resided in Jena, Germany, Holmes suggests Germany, and especially the avant-garde romantic movement in Jena, became the backdrop for characters, scenery, and especially the new sci-fi thematic elements brimming with Germanic character.  Expanding on Percy Shelley’s introduction that alludes to a German origin for the novel, Holmes suggests Mary Shelly’s gothic aesthetic owes a large portion of its genesis not just to Germany, but specifically to Jena and Jena romanticism.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Jena was indeed the home of a group of young intellectuals, writers, poets, philosophers and scientists, who for a short but productive period (1792-1801) regularly met, collaborated, and together created a common philosophical and literary discourse now identified as Jena or early Romanticism. Schelling and Ritter were two of these figures, but they were by no means the only influential or the traditionally definitive representatives of the movement. That title belongs undoubtedly to Friedrich and August Schlegelwho hosted gatherings and readings and who also published the defining journal for the movement, the Athemäum. Neither is mentioned in Holmes’ chapter. Moreover, the gothic genre Holmes speaks of started roughly ten years after the Jena Romantics disbanded with the death of their greatest philosopher-poet Novalis in 1801. Gothic Romanticism in Germany is better associated with the medieval city of Heidelberg and E.T.A. Hoffman, who explicitly employs vitalist themes in his work.

Holmes’ suggestion about the German gothic and philosophic influences of Shelley’s novel is compelling, but it requires a good deal of speculation. He himself admits this fact: “Ritter’s tragic story was clearly known to Banks, to Davy, and very probably to Lawrence after his time in Göttingen with Blumenbach. Whether it was known to Dr. Polidori and whether it was he who told it to the Shelleys in 1816, isspeculation” (my emphasis, 329). Holmes’ approach is not only highly speculative, but also inaccurate. Why tie Shelley’s novel to Ritter and specifically Jena Romanticism when his own evidence suggests only an indirect relationship to German thinkers and their philosophy through Banks, Davy and Lawrence? Why tie Ritter specifically to Jena when a significant portion of his controversial experiments with magnetism occurred in Munich? In addition to Ritter other scientist-philosophers like C.A.F. Kluge, G.H. Schubert and Eberhard Gmelin were just as conversant and better known for their involvement within the vitalist debate and practice with mesmerism. Why not mention these scientists who profoundly influenced Heinrich von Kleist and E.T.A Hoffman—late Romantic authors who employ animal magnetism and vitalist themes in their works? Finally, why mention Jena when its philosophical heritage lay much more deeply with Kant, Idealism, Fichte, and Hegel, not vitalism? Holmes’ narrative is provocative, but in regards to Jena Romanticism and the German preoccupation with mesmerism his argument is misplaced and misleading.

In spite of this, it does not mean Shelley’s Frankenstein cannot be compared with Jena Romanticism, German vitalists, and German gothic literature. The creation of an “other,” a living aesthetic that provides a reflective foil for the subject’s self-definition, is at the heart of Jena Romanticism. Frankenstein’s monster is an excellent example of the Fichtean “not-I,” that opposite subjectivity required to know one’s true self. However, this is not what Holmes uses as a basis of comparison. If Holmes wished to identify later Romantic authors who directly engage vitalist themes, he could have easily drawn a comparison with any of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s works like “der Magnetiseur,” “der goldene Topf,” and “der Sandmann”—stories that deal not only with mesmerism, but also the creation of artificial life. Finally, he could have mentioned the actual gothic ghost stories the Shelleys and Polidori read while in Switzerland—the Gruselgeschichten that had been translated from German into French that included themes like bringing the dead to life and vampires. All of this could have provided a solid basis for establishing a more accurate picture of the various sources of Shelley’s narrative.

However, the “gothic” genre Holmes mentions has little to do with Jena and its subjective idealist discourse. If there is any Jena, or German, influence, Holmes should have emphasized how this influence had been filtered through a succession of Anglo-perspectives ranging from Coleridge to Keats and the French translations of cheap German horror stories, not the theoretical self-defining, self-critical Poesie that epitomizes Jena Romanticism. I fear this interpretation merely perpetuates the Anglo fascination with the German as mad scientist.

Wondering and Wandering About Africa

Thomas Jefferys, “Africa,” pub. 1772. 1 map: col.; 19 x 25 cm. © George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. All rights reserved, Board of Trustees of the University of Florida.

Richard Holmes’ chapter on “Mungo Park in Africa” fits rather uneasily within the rubric of The Age of Wonder and thus illustrates the some of the shortcomings of the book’s popular history.  Holmes presumably includes Mungo Park’s 1794 voyage to explore the Niger River in his book because the expedition was promoted by Joseph Banks, the president of The Royal Society and the figure whose encouragement of a wide range of scientific endeavors unifies the narrative of The Age of Wonder.  Yet Banks’ motives for supporting African exploration were complex and Holmes’ concept of wonder seems particularly insufficient in accounting for the European exploration of Africa during the era of the abolition debates (and slavery, not incidentally, is almost unmentioned in Holmes’ account).  Or rather, I argue, following the scholarship of Dane KennedyMary Louise Pratt, and Nigel Leask, what is at stake in the English exploration of Africa at the turn of the nineteenth century is precisely the reconstitution of Africa as a potential subject of wonder.  In other words, Africa did not simply exist as a place in which the English could wander and experience wonder; instead Africa had to be specifically defined as a potential subject of wonder in scientific terms, and this redefinition took place in the context of a shifting global economy of slavery and commerce.

My point here is thus to highlight the interrelated discourses of slavery, commerce, and sentiment that shaped English “scientific” pursuits in Africa and I suggest that these interrelated discourses are not fully accounted for in Holmes’ chapter on Mungo Park.  Why does it matter that we account for slavery and commerce when telling the story of scientific discovery in Africa?  In 1881 Sir Clements Markham described the work of Joseph Banks and the Africa Association as supposedly motivated by the realization that “almost the whole of Africa was unvisited and unknown.”  How could anyone claim that after more than a century of English slave trading and other commercial enterprises in Africa, it was “unvisited and unknown” to Banks and his colleagues?  Holmes’ biographical narrative merely recapitulates Markham’s late Victorian view of Africa exploration.  Instead the story of Banks and Mungo Park should elucidate precisely when and how this view was constructed, that is, how the English came to see Africa as a vast unknown continent awaiting their discovery rather than the scene of polities and markets to be exploited, as Africa was seen throughout much of the eighteenth century.

Throughout the eighteenth century, the English had access to a range of knowledge about Africa through accounts from classical sources, Arab and European traders, and European and African slave traders.  Most of this knowledge, in fact, was generated via the slave trade.  One can see detailed mid-century maps of Africa that testify to this knowledge, maps showing towns and political boundaries as well as geographical features.  Yet the origins of this knowledge in the slave trade eventually disqualified it as legitimate knowledge; by the nineteenth century the African map as published in England was empty, awaiting the properly verified information gathered by English men of science.  Holmes writes that “to the Europeans nothing was known for certain” of, for example, the route of the Niger River before Park set out (212).  I argue here that the point is not that “nothing was known” but that by the late eighteenth century such knowledge was not available to Europeans on terms they would recognize; it was not “certain,” not vetted by scientific information-gathering.

In between the period when the African map was filled in with slavery-derived detail and when it was emptied out awaiting scientific knowledge, the English became interested in Africa as a potential scene of commerce.  As the abolition movement gradually gained strength in England, several prominent abolitionists promoted the commercialization of Africa as an economic alternative that would supplant slave trading for English merchants.  This involved reconceiving of “Africans as a market rather than a commodity.”  Holmes briefly notes (but does not explore in depth) that the exploration of Africa by the British was promoted not merely for scientific purposes but for commercial ends.  The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Inland Districts of Africa (founded in 1788 by Banks and others), as its name indicates, figured Africa as a continent structured by politics, comprising “Districts” which could be reached by the English and opened to trade.  Mungo Park’s orders were “not only to locate the Niger, but… to ‘visit the principal towns or cities in its neighborhood, particularly Tombuctoo and Haussa.’”  As a prominent member of what became known simply as the Africa Association, Banks was well aware of the commercial aims of its economic expansionist members; this is especially striking since elsewhere in The Age of Wonder Holmes argues convincingly that Banks resisted scientific endeavors that were combined with commercial purposes, such as the French ballooning projects or Thomas Beddoes’ Pneumatic Institute.  Indeed, as Banks described the mission of Park’s second expedition, its linked commercial and proto-imperial/colonial ends were utterly clear: Banks writes “I have little doubt that in a very few years a trading Company might be established under the immediate control of the Government, who… would govern the Negroes far more mildly, and make them far more happy than they now are under the Tyranny of their arbitrary Princes … by converting them to the Christian Religion … and by effecting the greatest practicable dimunition of the Slavery of mankind, upon the Principles of natural Justice and commercial Benefit” (Holmes 222-3).  Thus, the exploration of Africa will make possible the conversion of Africans to Christianity, the improvement of pre-existing African governments, and the dimunition of slavery, all of which will be due to the “commercial benefit” of the trading companies that the English will establish in Africa.  There is no mention here of abstract scientific knowledge as a potential outcome of the expedition.

Yet “the idea of a heavily populated African interior with established cities and states, commercial networks, and markets for British goods” seems contradicted by Banks’s description of Park’s endeavor elsewhere when Banks writes that “it is by similar hazards of human life alone that we can hope to penetrate the internal face of Africa” (Holmes 211).  In this strange formulation, Africa is not a political zone, a populated continent of “Districts” and cities but a topographical construct that has a penetrable “internal face.”  I think this must be a “face” like a mountain “face,” although I am not entirely sure I understand Banks’s figure here.  Regardless, this image of Africa is unpeopled, non-political, topographical, subject to the classic masculine eighteenth-century language of scientific discovery – “penetration” into nature’s unknown realms.

Mungo Park’s best-selling account of his first expedition, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799), describes Africa in political terms with that key phrase “Districts of Africa” in its title, but it also performs significant work in the transformation of Africa in English discourse from a potential commercial zone to blank space penetrable by science.  Park’s narrative does this not by detailing scientific knowledge generated by his expedition.  Instead Park’s account is a sentimental narrative of a man of feeling wandering in a sublime environment.  The wonder he experiences as his eye is “irresistibly” caught by “the extraordinary beauty of a small moss in fructification” reconstructs an Africa that was still in part (even for Banks and those funding his expedition) a zone ripe for economic exploitation also as a space for the heroic achievement of British men of science in the nineteenth century (Holmes 219).

Further reading:

Mary Louise Pratt.  Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation.  New York: Routledge, 1992.

Nigel Leask.  Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing, 1770-1840.  New York: Oxford, 2004.

The Fusion of Literature and Science in Shelley’s Mont Blanc

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint, after Amelia Curran, and Edward Ellerker Williams; oil on canvas (1819) © National Portrait Gallery, London

The Romantic poets are often viewed as antagonistic to science.  For example, Theodore Ziolkowski suggests in his article, “Science, Frankenstein, and Myth,” that the radical application of science practiced by the Romantic-era polymaths often became a “mindless pursuit of knowledge with no thought for social implications” (Ziolkowski 40).  Such a view contrasts starkly with the Romantic ideal of championing the human imagination and its relationship to the natural world.  Of course, the Romantic poets rebelled against the idea that science was the essential key to the continued happiness and evolution of humankind, as can be seen for example in Mary Shelley’s novel,Frankenstein (1818), where forgetting the natural order of things leads Victor Frankenstein to disregard the consequences of his experiments.  Such examples have led Ziolkowski and others to the conclusion that the ideologies of Romanticism and science inherently clash—with artists and poets stereotypically seen as subjective and deeply indebted to aesthetics and natural philosophers craving organization and logic.  This is not an unfair assumption, as the Romantic era has its origins, in part, in a rebellion against Enlightenment rationalism and positivism.  However, once a broader perspective is taken in which Romantic-era science is viewed as encompassing such pursuits as ecology and geology one may come to different conclusions about the great Romantic authors’ views on the physical sciences.  These poets had just as much admiration for the sciences as their contemporary natural philosophers.  In fact, the Romantics placed much emphasis on promoting a holistic view of the natural world through a deep fusion of both aesthetics and science through poetic form.

As a number of other contributors to The 18th-Century Common point out, Richard Holmes’ book, The Age of Wonder (Knopf, 2009) does a magnificent job of telling the life stories of the men and women who worked in Romantic-era natural philosophy and thus the origins of modern science.  During the long-eighteenth century, the term “scientist” did not, of course, signify what it means today.  Instead, these men and women simply followed their curiosities in chemistry, biology, physics, and exploration—and they were often referred to as “natural philosophers.”  With the founding of the Royal Society in Britain, and due to competition with the French, an intense arms race began, as a number of parties wanted to make the next great discovery in natural philosophy.

Holmes successfully connects Romantic science to Romantic literature in his work.  He shows that the notion of “wonder” was a necessary component for both the great poets as well as the brilliant men and women of science.  The fascination and admiration for the power and complexity of the natural world drove these individuals to create and discover poetry as well as scientific knowledge that laid the groundwork for future advances in science and technology.  There are, however, certain gaps in Holmes’ work.  In his prologue, Holmes states that although similar emotions connected the scientists and the writers, Romanticism is intensely hostile to science.  However, such a view has been thoroughly undermined by recent scholarship in the field of Romantic studies.  For example, Trevor H. Levere analyzes the life histories and works of the Romantic-era poets and eschews the idea that there is no link between the science of the time and the sublime poetry.  According to Levere, the Enlightenment objectivity that Romantic poets found so disheartening was also felt by scientists to be loathsome (Levere 97).  Levere shows that the poets were fascinated by the sciences, and that the scientists were passionate about the poetic sublime.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Romantic poet and radical revolutionary, is a perfect example of an individual championing a passion for both science and literature.  Shelley did not see a reason to separate science from his poetry.  Rather, he viewed them holistically.  His notion of wonder covered both scientific exploration and writing about the aesthetics of nature, and his two passions can be seen as melded together seamlessly in his poem Mont Blanc (1817).  Holmes’ lack of emphasis on scientists who embodied both Romantic literature and science is perplexing yet convenient for his argument.  He separates the poets from the scientists, and he weakly links them by stating that the feeling of wonder was necessary to create literature and make discoveries.  But, the Romantic era was much more complex than this—writers, explorers, chemists, and astronomers all reacted against the Enlightenment, and they asked their readers to view the world in an entirely novel way; they viewed the natural world holistically and appreciated its power, beauty, and mystery.  For individuals like Shelley, there was no separation between the cultures of the literary societies and the Royal society, and perhaps this is why Holmes pays such little attention to the poet in his book.

Through a close reading of the poem, we see that Shelley may have been one of the very first environmentalists.  The text begins with the poet inspecting the mountain, much like any modern scientist would do—except because of his unique gift of poetry and his unique perspective on the nature of human perspective and thought, this analysis is interwoven with Romantic ideals, such as respect for the raw power of the environment:

Thus thou, Ravine of Arve—dark, deep Ravine—

Thou many-colored, many voiced vale,

Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail

Fast cloud-shadows and sunbeams: awful scene,

Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down

From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne,

Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame

Of lightning through the tempest (Shelley 12-19)

Shelley gives a geographical and topographic survey of the mountain while also musing on the terrifying power of the natural world, and he compares this to the insignificance of the human race.  Shelley’s admiration for the mountain is clear, as he states Mont Blanc “yet gleams on high:—the power is there/ The still and solemn power of many sights,/ And many sounds, and much of life and death” (Shelley 127-129).  For the poet, the natural world is perfect on its own—untouched by humans and an ideal representation of life and death.  Shelley’s ideal of preserving an environment untouched by humankind has much in common with today’s environmentalist “green” movement.  He was conscious of the negative effects that humans could potentially have on nature by objectifying it for the purposes of science.  His obvious reverence for the natural world led him to believe whole-heartedly in what we would now refer to as “sustainability,” as it would be tragic if places like Mont Blanc were not to remain as inspirational to the human mind as a result of human interference.  Shelley and his fellow Romantic authors channeled their wonder towards the natural world and the field of science into their poetry.  While the scientists often aimed to use nature for their own benefit, making discoveries that could lead to wealth and fame, the poets believed in appreciating nature and exploring its power in a way that today we would say left a small carbon footprint.


Levere, Trevor H.  “Coleridge, Davy, Science and Poetry.”  Nature Transfigured.  Eds.

John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth.  Manchester University Press:  Manchester and New York, 1989.


Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  Shelley’s Poetry and Prose.  Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil

Fraistat.  New York:  Norton, 2001.


Ziolkowski, Theodore.  “Science, Frankenstein, and Myth.”  The Sewanee Review.  Vol.

89, No. 1 (Winter, 1981):  34-56.

A Reconsideration of the Work of William and Caroline Herschel

In The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes focuses his chapters “Herschel on the Moon” and “Herschel

Sir William Herschel, detail of an oil painting by L. Abbott, 1785; in the National Portrait Gallery, London. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Among the Stars” on telling the story of William Herschel and his scientific career as well as Caroline Herschel’s role in her brother William’s success.  While Holmes does credit Caroline at times for her important role in William’s achievements, he does so only in a very cursory manner, and he has a tendency to view Caroline’s ambition as simply her desire for her brother’s success.  Unfortunately, Holmes does not pay much attention to Caroline’s personal and professional ambitions.  While Holmes does not completely ignore Caroline or her role in Romantic-era natural philosophy, he fails to appreciate and describe fully Caroline’s original research because he consistently figures her as William’s subordinate.  Holmes repeatedly relies on a coded language of gender to depict Caroline as some sort of “mistress” in William Herschel’s projects of scientific discovery (184).  In this brief essay, I suggest that we need to remove this gendered lens when considering the contributions of Caroline Herschel to developments in astronomical science during the period of 1780 to 1848.  By doing so, I show that Caroline suddenly emerges as a very ambitious individual producing much scientific work on her own.

Holmes reveals how dutiful a sister and assistant Caroline was to William, but he also implies that Caroline found such a role entirely fulfilling.  In “Herschel Among the Stars,” Holmes explains how William attained “a separate royal stipend for Caroline as his official ‘astronomical assistant’” (178).  Furthermore,  Holmes proposes that William requested that the stipend come officially from Queen Charlotte as a way of maintaining some sense of conventionality in the bold move of paying a woman for doing scientific research.  William wrote the request with a “fine mixture of reason, politesse, and provocation.  It also contained the interesting claim that the idea for the request had come from Caroline herself” (178).  The latter passage is lost in a paragraph in which Holmes details William’s efforts to attain a salary for his sister.  This subtle decision on Holmes’s part shows that he does not even consider the idea that Caroline may have been seeking out a salary for herself because she desired some credit for her work or a sense of financial independence from her brother.

Another example of this subtlety occurs when Holmes is discussing other women in the scientific world of the late 1700s.  Holmes rightfully states that it is difficult to be indignant about the unequal salaries for male and female scientists when considering the “contemporary standards” of the eighteenth century (179).  He points out that “only in the next generation was it possible [for a woman] to have a career like the physicist Mary Somerville” (179).  Then, in the last sentence of a paragraph highlighting the gender inequalities of women in science, Holmes states, “But then, Caroline did live long enough to exchange letters with Mary Somerville drily remarking on this situation” (179).  This passage suggests that Caroline did have thoughts and feelings about the boundaries enforced on women in science, but Holmes fails to explore this possibility in depth because he does not cite any letters or exchanges between Caroline and Mary regarding this matter.  In fact, in my attempt to track down this “correspondence” between Caroline and Mary, I followed Holmes’s citation to Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel to find that only a single letter exists here between the women.  The letter Holmes refers to is actually a brief note from Mary to Caroline in which Mary writes about her new book and in no way “drily remark[s]” on the nature of women’s careers in science during the era as Holmes suggests (Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel 274).   In short, Holmes’s evidence here obviously requires further elaboration and especially substantiation.

Another example of Holmes’s limited perspective of Caroline is addressed through the discussion of William’s decision to marry Mary Pitt.  William was “divided between attraction to Mary Pitt, loyalty to his sister, and dedication to his science,” but in committing to a wife change was inevitable (184).  Holmes declares that “Caroline had much to fear” because of the change in family dynamics (184).  While it is highly plausible that the idea of William’s marriage was upsetting to Caroline because the sibling pair had such a close relationship, Holmes’s use of the word “fear” suggests that Caroline was clinging to William for her life, and such a reference does not allow readers to view her as strong or independent.  While the tension between Caroline and William is quite evident, Holmes is once again emphasizing Caroline’s subordination and ignoring any possibility of her personal ambition and independence.

Caroline does more than assist her brother’s scientific career; she makes discoveries of her own of course.  The following excerpt from a letter Caroline wrote after discovering her first comet reveals just how capable she is on her own:

The employment of writing down the observations, when my brother uses the 20-feet reflector, does not often allow me time to look at the heavens; but as he is now on a visit to Germany, I have taken the opportunity of his absence to sweep in the neighborhood of the sun, in search of comets.  (Caroline Herschel, An Account of a New Comet; read at the Royal Society, Nov. 9, 1786.)

Caroline discovered her first comet while observing the night sky through her brother’s telescope.  Caroline’s implication that William’s “absence” provides her an “opportunity” depicts her as not simply a doting assistant but as a scientist with individual objectives.

In the Georgian Star, Michael D. Lemonick nicely explores Caroline’s ambition in astronomy:

Caroline was not only very bright but also confident . . .  [O]ne might expect that a woman raised to be an uneducated servant would be filled with self-doubt.  But Caroline knew an idiot when she saw one and was savvy enough to keep it to herself.  Her ambition was powerful.  (46)

Lemonick points out that the odds were stacked against Caroline as she was not expected to amount to much in her scientific endeavors, but he puts more emphasis on the determination that allowed her to reach a greater potential in life.

While Lemonick’s and Holmes’s portrayals of Caroline do not differ greatly, it is Lemonick’s attention to Caroline’s strength as an individual that distinguishes his work from Holmes’s.  Acknowledging Caroline as a capable individual with ambition and drive widens his viewpoint and allows for a more thorough, well-rounded depiction of the Herschel siblings.  Holmes’s tendency to exhibit Caroline as a subordinate attached to William creates a patronizing representation of her and leads to gaps in his writing as a whole.

Patricia Fara also discusses the story of Caroline and William Herschel in her book Pandora’s Breeches.  She draws our attention to the danger of turning Caroline’s success into more than what it really was.  Many historians and biographers, Fara points out, try to “convert her into a female icon of science” and “have rewritten Caroline Herschel’s story to underline . . . the contributions she made towards breaking down prejudice against scientific women.”  Fara argues:

When does a shift of emphasis become an exaggeration, a distortion?  Scientific women have been concealed for so long that it’s very tempting to overstate the case and convert them into unsung heroines.  Retelling women’s stories to make them conform with modern ideals is historically insensitive; moreover, it is not very helpful for understanding how the past has led to the present.  (149)

As Fara contends, feminists have sometimes misled us by overemphasizing and exaggerating women’s contributions from the past.  I agree that overstating Caroline’s role would be an ignorant and narrow approach to any history of astronomy during the long-eighteenth century.  However, I disagree with the other end of this critical spectrum represented by Holmes—that Caroline’s greatest accomplishments lie in assisting her brother.  Fara writes:

Far more than a simple helper she was indispensible for establishing William Herschel’s reputation and compiling his work for publication.  Through her collaboration with her brother, Caroline Herschel strongly affected the course of astronomy.  This aspect of her achievements seems far more significant than her discoveries of a few small comets.  (150)

I think there is a position between these two opposing ends, and I argue that, while her collaborative work with her brother was a significant portion of her work, it was the moments when Caroline was working alone that she made her greatest contributions.

Works Cited

Fara, Patricia. Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment. London: Pimlico, 2004.

Holmes, Richard. The Age of Wonder. New York: Pantheon, 2008.

Lemonick, Michael D. The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos. New York: Atlas &, 2009.