If people ask what sort of historian I am, if I am being somewhat formal I answer a narrative historian of the contextual history of science. That’s quite a mouthful and if I have to explain it I say, I’m a storyteller. I tell stories from the history of science, not anecdotes but factually based stories. For me the most important aspect of those stories is that the scientific elements are embedded in the social, political, cultural, religious, intellectual and economic contexts of their time. Science for all of its supposed objectivity does not live outside of human culture but is an integral part of it. If I was asked to give an example of how my approach to the history of science works in practice I might well point people towards Emily Winterburn’s The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel.
In this book Emily Winterburn has delivered up a perfect example of how to write a narrative history of the contextual history of science.
Emily Winterburn, who is an Internet friend, wrote an excellent doctoral thesis, which I have as a pdf, on The Herschels: A scientific family in training as a part time student at Imperial College. I assumed that she would turn this work into a book but she chose instead to concentrate her efforts on just one member of this extraordinary family of astronomers, Caroline.
This is not a full biography of Caroline Herschel but is an in depth look at just one decade in her life, the ten years in which she ceased to be merely Williams sister and assistant and became a fully fledged observational astronomer in her own right. What also makes this decade in her life so interesting for the historian is that Caroline kept journals all her life and also wrote autobiographies for her relatives but for some reason she destroyed her personal records for just these ten years, her, in scientific terms, most productive ones.
Winterburn’s book does not just concentrate on Caroline’s astronomical discoveries, comets and nebulae, but embeds these in the full social, political, economic and cultural context in which Caroline lived and worked during this period. In particular Winterburn illuminates the strategies and tactics that Caroline and also William used to help her gain access to the exclusively male world of late eighteenth century science. Alone this aspect of the book makes it a valuable piece of eighteenth century British social and cultural history and well worth the purchase price.
Winterburn deals in detail with the shifting relationships that Caroline had with the various members of her family, especially both her domestic and her working relationships with her elder brother William. She illuminates, in particular, very nicely how that working relationship evolved as Caroline became not just William’s assistant but an astronomer in her own right also how her role as assistant also evolved as William’s research interests changed over the years. On the domestic side both William’s marriage and the advent of his son John Herschel also caused significant changes in Caroline’s life.
With increasing fame Caroline a shy and retiring person also had to deal with more and more contacts with people outside of her close family circle, something that was in many senses a cause of stress for her. However she still managed to develop personal relationships with leading astronomers such as Lalande and Maskelyne, a slow process that Winterburn illustrates very skilfully.
There is much in depth background material on eighteenth century astronomy, the role of women at this time, particularly in science, and the social structures of Georgian England. This is not just a portrait of an important pioneering female astronomer but a full contextual description of what it meant to be a pioneering female astronomer in the late eighteenth century. Winterburn has written a masterpiece of contextual, narrative history of science, which is also a prime example of first class feminist historiography. She writes superbly with a light touch and her book is a delight to read. I started it in my hospital bed and when I came home it became my bedtime reading. The short but information packed chapters are just the right length for reading before turning off the light and I was quite sad when I finished the book and had to find something else to finish the day.
Because the book is based largely on primary sources the bibliography is very short but Winterburn also gives a list of books for potential further reading. There are endnotes (he said through gritted teeth), which are mostly just references and a comprehensive index. In the middle of the book there is a collection of black and white plates.
If you are interested in the history of astronomy, feminist history, Georgian history or just like an excellent read then buy this book, I promise you won’t regret it.
 Emily Winterburn, The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy, The History Press, Stroud, 2017