Tag Archive: Bath

A series of fortunate events have lately occurred, re-directing attention to my historical fiction manuscript, Double the Stars: The Life and Adventures of Miss Caroline Herschel.

Dresses on display in the Costume Museum / Fashion Museum. From the 1800s.

My friend Cassie Herschel-Shorland, an artist and museum access/design consultant, whom I had the good fortune to meet via my research on the Herschel family and who lives about ten minutes away from me in our nook of South East London, invited me to join her on a day trip to Bath. She was meeting her father, John Herschel, to go see the new Caroline Lucretia Gallery in the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, to attend the AGM of the William Herschel Society, and to hear the evening lecture of that society. Would I like to join them?

On Saturday 24 March, Cassie and I took the train from Paddington. On the journey, we had time to talk about our respective projects on Caroline Herschel. I’ve been thinking about how I want to treat Caroline as a character: there is a tension arising between wanting to ‘air-brush’ her so the book will be made into a film starring Emma Watson as Caroline and Paul Bettany as William (with of course Keira Knightley cameo-ing as the Duchess of Devonshire – hell, while we’re at it, let’s have Helen Mirren as Queen Charlotte & Nigel Hawthorne as King George III), versus wanting to stay true to the person I’ve become familiar with through my research into her life, her history, her memoirs, her family, and the places she lived. That is, a tension between trying to write a book that may sell well versus writing a book that may be a smaller, quieter, (ideally) literary success.

Cassie, meanwhile, is in the final year of an MA on Archaeological Illustration, with a large part of that being historical reconstruction, and has decided to do her final project on reconstructing an image of Caroline. She is thinking about whether it should be a straightforward portrait without much else in the picture, or whether it might be a more Victorian-inspired compendium of objects, with their own meanings and stories, creating a setting in which to place Caroline. Casssie is in charge of the only dress left of Caroline’s, which is presently on loan to the Herschel Museum in Bath, and is considering how she will incorporate the style of the garment into the image.

Caroline's dress in the Herschel Museum.

We are each, in our ways, ‘Constructing Caroline,’ and I’m interested in the process as well as the outcome. I’m delighted that I proposed the idea over a year ago to Cassie of thinking about interpreting her own artistic image of Caroline at the time my novel focuses on (mostly around 1782) so I might use the illustration in Double the Stars. This settled in the back of Cassie’s mind and resurfaced when she began to make decisions about her MA. With that project comes a slew of requirements which will make her work more deeply layered, because historically reconstructing a picture of a person relies on evidence without the freedom of invention which I have in my book. Nonetheless, because of the research I have done, Cassie has asked me to be one of three advisors on her project, and I’m honoured. A great deal of our discussion on the train included me referencing something in the novel, followed with an explanation of whether it was  from research or invention. With the novel, decisions come down to plausibility – whether something could have happened, in light of that person’s personality, character, and circumstances. In historical reconstruction, it’s about whether something did happen, and whether there is evidence for it. If there’s not, Cassie explained, either that feature / characteristic / decision should be left out, or it must be made clear that it is an imaginative leap.

Cassie and I went to the Museum of Costume, now known as the Fashion Museum, to explore some of the older collections on display. The Museum has done a brilliant job of putting their archives ‘on display’ by creating glass-fronted, shopfront-looking sets with boxes piled high in the background and on the sides, explaining that visitors are actually standing in the archives and we may see curators going about their work inside these displays. However, there was a definite leap from the distinctive styles of the mid-1700s to what we’d be familiar with as the Jane Austen styles of the 1800s, and Caroline falls smack in the middle of this. When she arrived in Bath, she would have landed amidst Marie Antoinette / Duchess of Devonshire style wigs, panniers, whalebone stays (corsets) – the height of extravagant fashion. By the time she was working in Windsor as an astronomical assistant, styles would have relaxed to the nightgown-light, empire-waist, sprig-muslin, Jane Austen look. I’m not quite sure what happened in between. It isn’t as if there was a Darwinian diminishing of panniers and bustles into smaller and smaller humps until they disappeared. I think the fashions were set in Paris and swung from one extreme to another. The Duchess of Dev stepped out in her outrageously high wig, and everyone said, ‘Oo-er, hem-haw, oh go on then, we’ll do it too.’

Lovely Georgian snuff or pill-box in foreground, letter from William to Caroline ('Lina') in the background. Herschel Museum of Astronomy, Bath.

I snapped some photos while Cassie took notes and made sketches, and then we were out into the sunshine, walking back to the station to meet her father. The present-day John Herschel is a smiling, sweet, generous man in his mid-seventies, who reminds me of my grandfather in a few ways: he’s bald on the crown of his head but has a feathery halo of white hair wrapping round, he walks with an energy that sometimes seems to carry him away (to the point where I’m waiting to either catch him or break a possible fall, though none of this, fortunately, happened,) and his eyes soften with a wonderful kindness when he looks at me. Cassie, John, and I went to the Green Park Brasserie for lunch. and John pulled out a handful of archive files to show us which he’d brought along for the AGM.

After lunch, we walked around the corner to the Herschel Museum. A friendly young man greeted us as we entered: ‘Welcome to the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, the home of William and Caroline Herschel, where William discovered the planet Uranus from this very garden…’

‘Yes,’ John said with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. ‘I’m John Herschel.’

The young man, still smiling, looked adequately surprised.

Then something happened which I found absolutely hilarious and utterly British – he asked all of us to pay the admission fee. In the sweetest possible way, mind you, and with an appropriately apologetic (also British,) ‘I’m so sorry but they’re real sticklers about this,’ air, but I still thought it was just amazing. (The fee is £5, by the way.) The reason I find this amazing is because it is an example of the slightly bumbling and sweet but still rather stingy nature of some institutions (and the rule-abiding nature of this young chap, which is admirable,) and the humble, unassuming nature of the Herschels for not being fussed about the situation. I usually don’t pull the ‘In America,’ card, but in America, I’d bet any family visiting a museum of their ancestors would be welcomed in for free, celebrated in some way, and there would definitely be the risk of that family feeling entitled to such a reception. To be fair, this poor bloke had no warning we were coming, and there are other people who work at the museum who do know John very well indeed, so I think it was all a matter of circumstance. But for heaven’s sake, I would have let them in for free if I’d been working there!


John Herschel-Shorland and his daughter Cassie out in the sun-drenched garden of 19 New King Street, Bath, the Herschel Museum of Astronomy.

We toured the museum, familiar to all of us, and paid special attention to the new gallery, which takes up a beautifully converted corner of the garden, attached to the workshop where William once blew up the flagstones when molten metal spilled from a speculum mould. It is a small, smooth, simple space, half made of glass walls with neutral drapes to protect the changing display of astronomical art, both modern and historical. It was a stunningly sunny day, and the door was open, leading us out to the charming garden. It’s amazing to remember that the garden used to run all the way down to the river, which now has two more streets of houses and the Brasserie (which is in what used to be a glorious Victorian railway station) in between the much smaller garden and the river.

We all spent a few hours pottering about the museum. Cassie and I discussed the dress: its shape, display, size and give. How big was Caroline? Tiny. Even for her day. I have an old photo of me posing beside the dress from one of my earlier reconnaissance trips to the museum. It was especially interesting to contrast the dress with the ones we’d recently seen at the Costume Museum, because she really was tiny indeed. The dress looks like it would fit a girl of 12 or 13 nowadays, and there’s some evidence that she may have worn it around the age of 70! (Though elderly people can shrink…)

John and Cassie in the new Caroline Lucretia gallery.

After the museum, we decamped for tea, discussing the new gallery. It’s a beautiful inside space; the outside is a little modern for my liking. I’ll be interested to see what sort of temporary exhibits they plan for the future. The current exhibit is a lovely handful of wood objects or ‘astronomical sculptures’ by Chris Williams from his ‘Furniture for Stargazers‘ collection, including a wooden orrery. Walking from the museum to a cafe, John paused to say how delightfully sparkly and astronomical my dress was – I was tickled; I’d purposely worn my dark blue dress with sparkles as it felt appropriate to our astronomically-inspired day – how cute that John noticed! ‘Well spotted!’ I replied (and the stargazing puns roll on…)

I wandered up to the Royal Crescent while Cassie and John went to the Herschel Society AGM. They invited me but assured me it was more worthwhile to attend the evening lecture. The green in front of the Crescent was littered with half-dressed uni students and their picnic paraphernalia. Just between the Circus and the Crescent is a fabulous little pedestrian street, Catharine Place, and I explored some shops, bought overpriced but deliciously scented soap, and fell in love with Bath Old Books, where I bought the delightful volume ‘Scientific Dialogues, Intended for the Instruction and Entertainment of Young People, in which the first principles of Natural and Experimental Philosophy are Fully Explained,’ published by the Rev J. Joyce in London in 1838. I opened the volume and it popped open to page 109. What did the top of the page read? ‘Of the Herschel Planet’. Later, when we’d sat down to a quick supper before the lecture, John and Cassie asked me to read a little (in the low light, with tiny print,) and I read an excerpt, of which I attach a photo.

From 'Scientific Dialogues,' 1838.

Professor John Zarnecki spoke on the Huygens Mission to Titan, which was much more approachable and entertaining than it might have been – Zarnecki was an enthusiastic speaker and said things like, ‘I’m going to use a technical word now: ‘stuff,” and ‘the rainfall of gloop,’ and ‘we’d all drunk a lot of champagne and when the reporters demanded we come up with some results only a few hours into the mission, with only a few bits of data we hadn’t sorted out yet, we decided the surface was like creme brûlée…’ It was a lovely lecture, but it seemed that Cassie and I were the only ones who needed to catch a train back to London (more of the family had come for the evening including those who would ferry John home). So as soon as the lecture ended, mid-applause, we dashed out and ran to the station.

We made it onto the train with one minute to spare. After I’d mopped up my ‘glow’ from the run and downed a bottle of water (and finished gasping – all the while Cassie appeared entirely composed, and she’d run in heels, no less,) we spent the journey home talking about our projects, with a day’s worth of new inspiration.

Inspirational Days: Bath

R & P in the unexpected bamboo forest on the grounds of Claverton Manor.

There are conflicting arguments that on one hand it is necessary to take a break from one’s writing in order to ‘get some distance,’ ‘come back fresh,’ ‘see the forest for the trees,’ etc., and on the other, we are never not working. We are always thinking about writing, consciously or not, because living gives us the material for our work.

Yesterday I heard John Banville discussing his work (more on that in another post,) and he told an amusing anecdote. When he was newly married, he was having a massive row with his wife, and in the middle of her rant, he stopped her to say, ‘can I use that in a book?’ – You can imagine how that went down…

So it was with great pleasure that I took a day trip to Bath, the city which has so much to do with the Herschels, and spent the day almost entirely not thinking about the Herschels.

My lovely friend Patricia Hammond, aka The Canadian Nightingale, invited me & our friend Richard Barnett, aka Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow, medical historian, and author of the excellent Medical London as well as the delectable (forthcoming) Dedalus Book of Gin, to a day out.

Thus early on Wednesday morning, three bleary artistic-types found themselves on the platform of Paddington Station, and were swept off through the smog of London out to the green expanse of the Chilterns, towards Bath.

Claverton Manor, designed by Jeffry Wyattville. Built in the 1820s.

We were going to Bath specifically to visit The American Museum in Britain. Patricia had discovered it, and so off went one Canadian, one Brit, and one American, to find this most unusual place: the only Museum about America that is not in America.

We arrived so early the Museum wasn’t yet open, so we ambled around the grounds and gardens, admiring the stunning views over the Somerset valleys. The Manor is at the southern end of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and yes, it deserves the name. To lounge outside in the sunshine beside the Georgian warmth of Claverton Manor was glorious.

It was the first, and quite possibly only, time in my life where I found myself a source of interest simply because I am from Rhode Island. The museum was fairly quiet on a Wednesday morning/midday, and we chatted with a number of the museum assistants. I’m used to thinking of American Anglophiles, but to see British…America-philes? …English people who were such fans of American history was very, very interesting.

Much of the museum was surreal to walk through, because they have recreated a house and a tavern from New England, and it was very much like being in a time capsule and going to particular places at home, in Rhode Island, like the DPI: ‘The Captain Daniel Packer Inne Restaurant and Pub.‘ When I’m in town, I tend to go to the pub, because the atmosphere is proper old New England with a touch of Old(e) England. And they have amazing clam chowder. The ‘tavern’ bit of the museum reminded me of the DPI.

R enjoying a bask in the sunshine at Claverton Manor.

So much of the furniture was like that of my grandparent’s house, which is now up for sale, that the experience was very unsettling. It wasn’t quite like being at home, but it was close enough to make me feel homesick, and sad in a way that was difficult to put into words. I don’t know if the house will still be in the family the next time I go to RI, and I don’t think I’ll ever stay in the house again. I grew up there, as did generations of my family for the past 200 years, and losing it is something I would frankly prefer not to face. I would rather focus on England, and Europe, than New England – the New World feels like my old one.

Patricia making herself even more lovely.

We toured the museum, which exhibited displays ranging from historic American quilts – including one from Westerly, RI – to the Shaker lifestyle, furniture, and clothing styles. We decided Richard was best suited to Shaker attire, with a long coat & waistcoat. We decided Patricia and I were not particularly suited to bonnets and wool cloaks.

Another room contained a stunning, red-wallpapered boudoir from New Orleans with a massive four-poster, crowned mahogany (or walnut) bed, mirrored dressing table and mirrored armoire, and another was full of musical instruments, including a piano, a harp, and a parlour guitar inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

We took lunch on the terrace in the sunshine, and had ‘gumbo’ which was, to my experience, half-American and half-British in influence. Have you ever eaten gumbo on top of a baked (what the English call ‘jacket’) potato? I introduced R & P to ‘snickerdoodles’ – sugar cookies with cinnamon. Yum!

Tussy Mussy from Claverton Manor.

And we celebrated P’s birthday, which was the following day, with a ‘Tussy Mussy,’ or nosegay of flowers.

The Museum’s special exhibition on Marilyn Monroe was well-put together; it showcased a number of her famous dresses, and we were especially amazed at how, without her in them, the dresses were, for the most part, fairly normal. But just add Marilyn and bam! they become amazing. Hers is a glamorous and tragic story indeed.

Views over Bath.

After exhausting the museum, I was delighted to show my companions the ‘secret’ route down Bathwick Hill into town. The views over Bath from this field are heart-wrenching, and I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy the walk more than once during my previous trips to Bath.

We ambled into town, where I introduced P to my favourite little boutique. ‘Not Cartier’s’ is in the Covered Market. A girl would be hard-pressed to find an Aladdin’s cave of baubles and costume jewellery better priced.

We restored ourselves with tea and some of Sally Lunn’s famous buns. Clotted cream, jam, lemon curd, oh my!

Happy Birthday, P!

After Sally’s, we walked to New King Street, where I showed R & P the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, in the house where they used to live. It was closed so late in the day, but I explained a bit about William’s discovery of Uranus, the sibling’s move from Bath to Windsor, and Caroline’s subsequent successes – particularly her daring ride on horseback from Windsor to Greenwich, which plays a part in the novel.

We wandered uphill to the Royal Crescent, where students lounged, listening to bad 80s music. Once upon a time, a person would have looked for a radio or ‘boom box’ in such a scene, but we couldn’t see the source of noise at  all, probably because it was such a small bit of technology. A far cry from Caroline and William Herschel singing their concertos in the Octagon Chapel.

Well-dressed, white-haired folk walked their terriers and whippets. As we sat upon a bench all in a row, P devised a theme song to a particularly portly dog which half-skipped, half-waddled along.

Much as we didn’t want to, we finally made our way back to the station, back to Paddington, and back to London.

A photo I snapped on a previous visit to the Herschel Museum of Caroline's trinket box, complete with a lock of William's hair and her worry-bead.

Come Sunday I shall take the train to Bath for the INSAP VII conference: The Seventh international conference on the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena, held this year in Bath, home to Caroline and William Herschel (as well as their younger brother Alexander): a conference of precisely 100 delegates who will convene at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution to share their work, ranging from art to academic studies – and a novel, of course! – all inspired by astronomy.

The opening reception will be held at the Herschel House, the home at New King Street where the Herschels used to live and work. The following week is packed with 20-minute talks and presentations, and I’m glad to be giving a reading from my manuscript on Monday so I can then relax and enjoy. I adore Bath! So, I shall give a reading from Double the Stars: The Life and Adventures of Miss Caroline Herschel. And I’m sure I’ll meet a great number of interesting and talented people, as well as see a few people I’ve met before in my astronomical adventurings, not least Michael Hoskin, leading Herschel scholar, and Peter Hingley, Librarian at the Royal Astronomical Society and the very person who told me about the conference.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 311 other followers