Museum of Astronomy Buys Handwritten Draft of Caroline Herschel’s Memoirs
The Herschel Museum of Astronomy in Bath has been successful in its quest to buy Caroline Herschel’s own handwritten manuscript draft of her memoir, thanks to generous funding from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF), ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of National Libraries, facilitated via Christie’s Private Sales.
The fascinating 57-page document represents Caroline’s life in her own words and is an enormously important addition to the Herschel Museum’s collection, not least because her many scientific achievements were historically overshadowed by those of her brother, William Herschel (1738-1822).
This Manuscript Memoir gives us a unique and personal insight into the life and formative years of one of Britain’s most prominent astronomers and pioneering women in science. Much of Caroline’s personal correspondence and writing is still held by the Herschel family, so the acquisition of this manuscript provides a rare opportunity for public access.
This acquisition is particularly special as the majority of objects currently on display are on loan, and the Museum only owns one artefact directly connected with Caroline. Acquiring more objects directly relating to the Herschel siblings is a key priority for the Museum’s team and Bath Preservation Trust, which owns and runs the site at New King Street. £50,000 from the ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, along with a £33,000 grant from NHMF, combined with £20,000 from Friends of the National Libraries and the proceeds of a public appeal, covered the funds needed to complete the purchase from Christie’s Private Sales.
Izzy Wall, Assistant Curator and the member of staff who has researched the manuscript, explains: “The manuscript was written around 1836 when she was 86, and consists of handwritten text in English by Caroline (1750-1848), with occasional passages or words in German. The chapters contained in this draft cover the years 1755-75, a crucial period of Caroline’s life, from her childhood in Hanover to early years in Bath.
“The manuscript provides a valuable insight into the Herschels’ life in Bath, Caroline’s education and her struggles when she arrived in England. It also gives us an understanding of their professional lives as musicians in Bath, at a time when William’s interest in astronomy, and his telescope-building endeavours were increasing.”
This Memoir Manuscript consists of two chapters of Caroline Herschel’s draft recollections, which form the content for The Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel, published in 1876. Although the edited text of this draft was published, much of the colourful material Caroline wrote was removed and remains unpublished.
There is something special about seeing the original words in the author’s own handwriting; the corrections and additions show Caroline’s stream of consciousness, an older woman recalling the stories of her youth. Along with providing details about her own life, Caroline chronicles her brother William’s first experiences and experiments in making telescopes, something he would later become a world leader in.
For the Herschel Museum of Astronomy itself, and sole Trustee Bath Preservation Trust, the manuscript exemplifies the museum’s collecting priorities, to acquire objects that can help to interpret the Herschels’ daily life in Bath, their musical and astronomical achievements, and the specific priority to give the story of Caroline greater prominence.
Claire Dixon, Director of Museums for Bath Preservation Trust explains what will now happen with this unique, historic object: “By securing this object and putting it on display in Caroline and William’s former home, visitors will be able to directly engage with Caroline’s story, literally through her own words. The manuscript will now be used as source material to inform a more authentic interpretation of the house and to inspire new content for our activity programmes and workshops, which focus on local schools, families and community groups. The acquisition of this Memoir Manuscript will fundamentally enhance our ability to tell the story of Caroline Herschel and her globally significant role in science.”