A day in Bath with the Herschels

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.

Medicine, theatre, & bedbugs

It’s that time of year for many freelancers and academics (perhaps it’s doubly bad for those of us with one foot in each world,) to either submit grant / job / funding / project applications or to start expecting to hear back from earlier applications. These run in fairly predictable phases around the holidays, summertime, etc, and thus there are stretches of time where a writer simply feels as if she’s done everything she can on any given project, and it is entirely out of her hands, and she’s waiting. The positive side: despite not knowing what the outcome of said applications/proposals/grants etc will be, I know people are reading my work/book/proposal etc because they too are working to a deadline. Meanwhile, I’m busy with a handful of other writing projects and reviews, and I’m working on some engagement projects that are unfolding in delightful ways.

Gives me the creepy-crawly heebie-jeebies just to look at the little critters...tune in 02/03 to learn more about them!

Tomorrow I’ll return to Imperial College with Rachael Black for our main workshop with the Medical Humanities students. I’m really looking forward to this: we’ve got a great core group of students who will be our actors, and we’re mixing pieces from Venus Heart with their own medical interpretations & experiences. Paired with Rachael’s extraordinary prowess at moulding what to me is an entertaining & interesting dramatic ‘sketch’ from a very, very short amount of time, this workshop is going to be a lovely blend of theatre and poetry. I’m going to spend some time introducing the material and explaining how I came to write the poetry play – this is the medical history aspect, all to do with anatomical wax models. I can’t think of a more relevant group to work with than medical students.

The radio collaboration I mentioned previously, my first experience with radio, was recorded over an extraordinary day at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with Rebecca Tremain and Richard Barnett. The episode is going to be aired on 18 April by Resonance FM. Delightfully, the three of us are members of the Wellcome Club, ‘Henry’s,’ so Henry’s is holding a special club evening the week before with wine & snacks, inviting members to come listen to a (pre)broadcast of our ‘Bedbugs’ episode. The Bedbugs episode is only one part of Rebecca’s series, ‘The Gilded Vectors of Disease‘ which will all be available on Resonance FM. I can’t wait to hear the series: rats, mosquitoes, bedbugs, lice, fleas, ticks…oh my!

Drama workshop for Imperial

On Friday 9 March, actress Rachael Grace Black and I ascended the dismally inelegant post-war tower of Charing Cross Hospital to Floor 11, to spend the afternoon in one of the most fascinating rooms I’ve ever had the privilege to work in.

La Specola, Firenze.

Led by Giskin Day, the Imperial College Medical Humanities programme provides a respite for students in the middle of their studies as medical students. It is an opportunity for them to explore the creative connections of medicine and the arts, including visual art, film, theatre, and poetry. Giskin invited me to run a poetry workshop for her class last year. When she invited me to return this March, I told her about my poetry play, Venus Heart, and asked if we could use some of the material with the students. Rachael, who has been an invaluable help to me in working out the direction of the play, agreed to join me in running a workshop that coaxed the theatre from the poetry – and from the students.

We zoomed up in the metal coffin of an elevator to meet Vin, the extraordinary man who runs the hospital’s Pathology Museum. This is a one-room space full of pathological human specimens. The Path Museum has closely guarded access and only students, teachers, and medics have the opportunity to make educational use of the material. We were able to use the empty seminar room adjoining the Museum.

Giskin had invited a handful of students to take part in a preliminary workshop, so we could set up a short dramatic piece for the students to then perform to their classmates during our main workshop on 22nd March. We needed at least five students, and six showed up; a promising start. I gave them a brief overview of the anatomical wax models of La Specola in Florence, and described my characters as well as a rough outline of the story. Venus Heart is based on thorough research and historical fact from the 18th century wax workshop. Much of this information came to me via the historian Anna Maerker, who has been enormously generous with her work on these ‘Model Experts’. I’ve combined this base of research with a blend of Gothic Frankenstein and classical Pygmalion literary influence. It is two parts science, two parts history, and a good dose of fiction.

Wax modelling materials in La Specola.

It was fascinating to see the students respond to the excerpts we shared. Rachael got them on their feet, running through over an hour’s worth of ‘warm-up’ and ‘ice-breaker’ exercises, coaxing, in a matter of minutes, improvements in their style of dramatic reading. We took one very small piece from the play, a back-and-forth of monologues switching from the female character of Teresa to the Director of the Museum, Fontana: Fontana is dissecting an ear, while Teresa is gathering snails to cook for a meal. The students were able to capture the mood and actions incredibly well.

We were treated to a tour of the Pathology Museum from its guardian, Vin. He has managed the specimens for over thirty years, and he works to engender a respect for all of the human remains kept there. He shared a few stories of specimens in the museum now which came as gifts from people he once knew, for Vin himself is a doctor. I hope to return to this amazing space and hear more from Vin.

Rachael wound up the day by preparing the students to think about a dramatic sketch we’re going to put together on the 22nd, which we’ll then share with two classes. We’re going to use material from my play as well as the group’s input about becoming doctors. I think it’s going to be an excellent workshop.

Glorious dusk outside of the orphanage in Florence. Human specimens were given to La Specola's anatomists from the orphanage and nearby hospital, Santa Maria Nuova.

I was delighted when Matt, one of the six, came up to me at the end of the afternoon and reminded me that we’d spoken last year – he’d been in the class last year and was coming along to this workshop because he’d enjoyed it so much. (I felt better once I checked that he’d had bleached blond hair last year and now it’s brown – hence me not recognising him!) Last year, Matt asked me for some advice on where he could find poetry events in London. I’d directed him to Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe, and to the Poetry Library in the SouthBank Centre for further resources about events, competitions, and of course, books.

This year, I learned that Matt recently won an award from the Institute of Medical Ethics for his poem ‘Hatstand’. This is an incredible piece, and you can watch it at the attached link (skip ahead to 1:56).

Matt was happy to let me post his performance, and I’m so pleased. He’s embodying exactly why this type of interdisciplinary work is important. I work in the crossover between literature and science because I love walking that line, exploring that ‘grey’ area, blending zest, colour, texture, from creative arts with intellectual rigour from science and history. To see medical students responding so well to these workshops confirms the worth and the need for this combined approach.

Creativity & Teamwork (my life)

Courtesy of the Chislehurst Artists

My latest piece for NewScientist is up here.

As mentioned below, mark your diaries for an eclectic evening of creative teamwork at the Whipple Museum on The Rules of Form, 14 March, 6pm – Free!

Stay tuned to tune in to Resonance FM to listen to my first foray into radio: a curious exploration into bedbugs at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I’ll post when it’s on the air, which will be in the next month or two.

I enjoyed an entertaining, packed evening at Oxfork in Oxford on Thursday night with Badaude, who co-ran a Catalyst event, and Dr Richard Barnett, who spoke on the history of gin, from his new book, the Dedalus Book of Gin, which I highly recommend consuming gleefully with a martini in hand.

I modelled for the Chislehurst Artists Saturday morning. It was unusually chilly in the room, but as ever, they’re a lovely bunch. Biscuits abound. A photo of their work scattered on the floor at the end of the session so they could discuss & critique it.

This coming Friday, I’m running part one of a workshop for the Medical Humanities Students at Imperial College London, along with my friend, the lovely actress Rachael Black. We are enormously excited to run this workshop in the lecture theatre of the private pathology museum at Charing Cross Hospital, and we’ll be working from my poetry play, Venus Heart.