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From the acclaimed author of The Last First Day, here is a beautiful new period novel: a nineteenth-century story of female empowerment before its time, based on the life of Caroline Herschel, sister of the great composer and astronomer William Herschel and an astronomer in her own right.
This exquisitely imagined novel opens as William rescues Caroline from a life of drudgery in Germany and brings her to England and a world of music making and stargazing. Lina, as Caroline is known, serves as William’s assistant and the captain of his exhilaratingly busy household. William is generous, wise, and charismatic, an obsessive genius whom Lina adores and serves with the fervency of a beloved wife. When William suddenly announces that he will be married, Lina watches her world collapse. With her characteristically elegant prose, Carrie Brown creates from history a compelling story that interweaves familial collaboration and conflict with a haunting exploration of the sublime beauty of astronomy and our small but essential place within a vast and astonishing cosmos. Through Lina’s trials and successes we witness the dawning of an early feminist consciousness—a woman struggling to find her own place among the stars.
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CARRIE BROWN is the author of seven novels and a collection of short stories. She has received many honors for her work, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award, and the Annual Library of Virginia Literary Award (twice). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in many literary journals. She and her husband, the novelist John Gregory Brown, live in Massachusetts, where they teach at Deerfield Academy.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The wind is with them, and she watches from the ship’s rail as the hard places disappear, fortress and stony beach and the long humped quay at Hellevoetsluis, the church and bell tower reduced in minutes to dark notches on the horizon. It is Saturday, and the church bells were ringing as they came aboard—not the hour, thus either a wedding or a funeral, she thought—but she cannot hear them anymore. It happened quickly, William taking her hand and helping her into the little vessel which took them out to the packet boat some distance away at anchor. She looks back from the ship’s deck now and realizes that for the first time in her life she is not standing on solid ground.
The afternoon is cool for August, shadows of clouds drifting over the land behind them, but as the ship moves farther from shore, a slant of sunlight falls from sky to ground, illuminating the row of painted houses facing the water. Glass in the windows flashes, pricks of light glinting along the vanishing quay in the dark afternoon.
She holds tight to the rail. She has dreamed about this departure, longed for it. Now she cannot look away from the glowing scene shrinking on the horizon, retreating from sight as if being tugged backward toward a void.
At last all definition is lost, beach and quay and houses and church and bell tower gone entirely. She no longer can make out the inlets leading into the marshes or the mouth of the river. An egret lifts from somewhere and can be seen for a moment, bright scrap against the tumult of dark clouds. She tries to keep the bird in sight, but finally it, too, disappears. Then there is only a thin black line on the horizon, barely visible, to suggest what they have left behind. When the line vanishes completely, she feels her stomach constrict. She has to remind herself: it is not that the land has slipped off the edge of the planet and into the void, though that is definitely the impression.
Her mind knows the land is still there, but what she feels is its absence.
Bright shifting patterns wrinkle the sea’s surface. Far out, floating patches of darkness, giant cloud shadows, roam over the water.
She turns to find her brother, but William has been absorbed among the passengers gathered at the rail.
Spray from a wave lands on her face and hands, startling with its cold, and Lina laughs even as she wipes her eyes. A woman beside her turns and gives her a questioning look.
On the post wagon yesterday, the final day of their voyage toward the coast of Holland from the forested slopes surrounding Hanover, her black hat had blown off. The land had been flat and flooded in places with shallow water that reflected the sky, and she’d looked back to see her useless hat floating on a mirrored patch of cloud-strewn blue. A further weight had seemed to leave her.
William had closed his book and glanced behind them at the shimmering field. “Your hat,” he’d said. “Shall I ask them to stop?”
“Oh! No,” she’d said, trying not to smile.
With every kilometer between herself and the home she had left behind, she’d felt lighter, as if soon she would float up off her seat.
William had shaken his head, puzzled, a brother amused by his sister’s inexplicable amusement.
She had not told him this: sometimes during the years he had been away from home, she’d walked down to the river at the bottom of the orchard. She’d known that if she waded in, perhaps even only as far as her knees, her dress would have become too heavy for her to struggle back up the bank to safety. The current could be powerful, especially with snowmelt in early spring. Illness had weakened her, and she was not strong. She had never learned to swim, as her brothers had. A girl was not taught anything she could use to save herself in the larger world. She had frightened herself, staring at that river.
Finally she’d written to William in England. Two words: Save me.
In a postscript, to maintain her dignity, she’d added: There is no one here with whom to converse anymore except the horse, and he has few opinions and a poor vocabulary with which to express them.
It had been necessary to make it possible for William to understand her plea as lighthearted. She could not have borne it if he had refused a request made in earnest. Yet he had known. He had understood her. He would not disappoint her. He was sorry it had taken so long, he wrote by reply. He had been making plans. He had not forgotten her.
Now, less than a year later, here they are, six days away from Hanover, six days away from her abandoned life. England’s invisible shore beckons.
She will never return, she thinks. Nothing could ever make her return.
Waves close over the overlapping road of their wake.
William appears beside her, touches her shoulder. She turns.
They are sailing out from beneath the clouds, and the packet moves as if passing into another realm out of the shadows and into bright sunlight. She can actually watch the sharp edge of the clouds’ darkness sliding along the deck from bow to stern, until at last they are free of it entirely.
The heat of the sun falls against her skin.
Again she has to wipe her cheeks. Well, these are tears, after all, and just as salty as the ocean. She knew they were there behind the laughter, tears for how awful it has been, all these years.
Her old life—and the life she always imagined would lie before her—is gone.
She turns away from what they have left behind.
She is twenty-two years old. Her brother William has set her free.
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