- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
Austin author John Pipkin’s new book “The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter” is a sprawling story, moving through a weird and tumultuous time for Great Britain, a novel of how the human heart navigates possibility and moves through history while questing to create it.
Caroline Ainsworth learns that her life in late 18th-century Ireland is more complicated than she imagined after her father, Arthur, an astronomer who has gone blind from staring at the sun, commits suicide.
Caroline is not Arthur Ainsworth’s biological daughter. The English Ainsworth inherited the estate New Park in Ireland, where he could delve into astronomy, a field that was making leaps and bounds, especially with the aid of telescopes. He took in Caroline, who has no parents, after his wife and child died during childbirth. Caroline becomes both daughter and assistant over the years.
There is romance, sort of, in the form of Caroline’s attraction to Finn, apprentice to a local blacksmith who is helping Arthur build a giant telescope. There is rivalry in the form of William Herschel and his sister Lina, real historical figures who discovered Uranus in 1781, a discovery that starts driving Arthur around the bend. After Arthur’s death, Caroline and Finn leave Ireland on the eve of a bloody revolt.
Got all that? That is “The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter” at its most skeletal, but at 480 pages, it’s a treat for those who love complex historical fiction.
Pipkin said he’s been thinking about the novel for years, well before he began his first book, the heavily feted “Woodsburner.”
“Eighteenth- and 19th-century poetry and history have always interested me,” said Pipkin, who has a doctorate in British literature from Rice University. “I wanted to draw connections between aesthetics and science, but I hadn’t quite found the narrative core of the story.”
Then Pipkin came across the story of that time (April 30, 1844) Henry David Thoreau accidentally started a forest fire and incinerated 300 acres of woods. Thus inspired, Pipkin went off and wrote “Woodsburner,” which was published in 2009.
Salvation came, as it often does, in the form of a show at the Harry Ransom Center.
“I was looking at a show on Edgar Allan Poe,” Pipkin said. “I saw a smaller display, in the small room (at the Ransom Center) of the center’s astronomical holdings.” The room was full of telescopes, old maps and drawings and an enormous paining of the moon. “As I got closer, I saw that painting was by Caroline (Lina) Herschel and was part of the papers collection. I had no idea the center had the Herschel family papers.”
So in the summer of 2010, Pipkin went through them, researching the archives, going through journals and looking at the scraps of papers from the holdings. The Ainsworths and the blacksmiths were already in place in the “Blind Astronomer’s” story — as they gave Pipkin access to the 19th-century culture he wanted to explore — but the papers were a revelation.
“That solidified for me that astronomy would be the narrative core of the story,” Pipkin said. “The real-life figures would function as the anchor point that fictional characters would orbit around.”
Pipkin had toyed with making the Herschels background figures, historical figures, perhaps referencing them. But the more he read in the archive, the more he realized there was room to move, and they “forced their way in to the books,” Pipkin said.
He hadn’t considered the idea of using Herschel and his family as primary characters, “but they became the glue that holds the book together,” Pipkin said.
“The fragmentary nature of the holdings offered more insight into their personal lives than a well-polished, well-researched biography would.” Pipkin said. “At the end of her life, Caroline Herschel made numerous copies of her journal that she gave to friends and family. The Ransom Center has several copies, and you can see how shaky her hand is and how sometimes she slips from English back into German. It gave a more personal sense of who these people were.”
Pipkin also found bits of letters and envelopes and scraps of paper — a tea menu, for example — covered in calculations and astronomical data. “It gave a sense of the frenetic activity. It gave a sense of their inner lives and personality. The papers raised questions that I wouldn’t have otherwise asked.”
“The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter” recalls a time when astronomy — when science in general, in fact — was a realm of wonder and amazement, a wonder that Pipkin feels is a little lacking in the way science is considered these days.
“I’ve always been interested in trying to capture that sense of wonder that astronomy holds that I think we seem to have lost,” Pipkin said. “When Herschel discovers Uranus, it is completely mind-blowing. It’s not just that nobody knew there was another planet out there; people didn’t think it was possible.”
In “Blind Astronomer’s Daughter,” Pipkin goes a long way to getting at that overwhelming sense of awe.
“I wanted to try to write something about the emotional and psychological aspects of astronomy without getting too deeply into the mathematical aspects that people can find overwhelming,” he said. “I wanted to capture that sense of looking at the stars and feeling as though you are falling upwards.”