Discovering orreries with Cassie Herschel-Shorland

Cassie carefully lays out objects from the box.

It’s inevitable that, by having so many different projects going on, one will simmer on the back burner for a long time while I focus on others. This has happened with my historical novel, Double the Stars, which is in a fourth draft, and under consideration by three parties – but, having had a bit of time to learn the world of agents and publishers – may not get beyond that stage in this round (though I hope, of course, that it does). However, life is breathed into the project thanks to Cassie Herschel-Shorland.

Cassie and I met because I co-planned/hosted a ‘Herschel Evening’ at the Whipple Museum in 2010, where I read far too much of a far too early draft of the novel (a good learning experience; a long-suffering audience of about 50 people)! Cassie wasn’t at the Herschel Evening, but her father, John Herschel, and her brother, William, and sister, Amanda, were. They are a delightful family: generous and enthusiastic; all one could want in a subject of research – and in a neighbour.

It turned out that Cassie lived only a short walk down the road from me in the Greenwich area of London. She opened her doors to me and shared a great deal of material for which she’s responsible – mostly, textiles, including a dress that used to belong to Caroline Herschel, the heroine of my novel and Cassie’s great (great great) Aunt.

Wax seal of the Herschel family, in a carved wooden box that was so well-turned the seam didn’t show when it was sealed (perhaps Alexander made it?) – the box was tucked inside a beautifully crocheted green bag: all very small and delicate.

Along with being a Museum Access & Design Consultant, with a fine knowledge of conservation, preservation, and reconstruction, Cassie is completing an MA. Because of our growing friendship and her generosity in sharing her family (and family history) with me (a trip to visit her parents and see many Herschel objects first-hand, and a day trip to Bath with her and her father being some of the highlights,) Cassie was inspired to use Caroline Herschel as the subject for her MA Thesis – to work up an historical reconstruction, an image that is as accurate as it can be, of what Caroline might have looked like around the age at which she appears in my novel. It would be ideal, we agreed, if this could be incorporated into the novel.

As an artist and painter, Cassie has also talked with me about my modelling, and she asked me some time ago if I’d be interested in sitting in period dress. I hadn’t made the connection that she was interested in having me ‘sit’ as Caroline! This past Saturday, I did sit as Cassie made some preliminary sketches. We both know I’m not the right ‘model’ for Caroline, who was absolutely tiny, not curvy at all, and in fact, slightly disfigured by smallpox and typhus. But it’s good exercise for Cassie to think of poses: seated, holding a teacup, holding a book, holding nothing? Turned towards the window, turned towards the viewer?

The charming paper orrery.

We also got to go through a treasure-box of miscellaneous items from one of Cassie’s ancestors (also, I think, a great-aunt,) which was full of bobbins, thread, bits and pieces; tiny sketch-books half-full of intricate drawings, gorgeous fluid handwriting copying extracts of poetry, calling-card cases and crumbling fans made of ivory.

By far my favourite object was a tiny paper globe with two pull-tabs (which Cassie gingerly moved around) – the globe lifts the lid and there are a few layers underneath. The writing is in German, so I’ll have to nudge one friend or another to translate (Meghan!) but I was tickled, because it is precisely the kind of thing we’ve got at the Whipple Museum, and this is precisely where the Whipple obtains wonderful objects like this. Cassie’s partner David discerned ‘the heavens and Earth’ from part of the script, and it is definitely a paper orrery of some kind.

So, the Herschel project continues, but it’s become a part of life, of friendship, of discovery, and I’m so grateful. I would, of course, like Double the Stars to be published eventually, but it’s got to find the right home, and the right set of circumstances, to support this evolving endeavour. It isn’t just a book, and whatever book comes of it must be sensitive to that.

A lock of John Frederick William Herschel’s hair.

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