Pipkin’s panoramic second novel (Woodsburner, 2009) unfurls a vista of scientific advances and social unraveling as the 18th century nears its close.
Arthur Ainsworth, a Londoner orphaned by an epidemic, inherits New Park, a manor estate in Ireland, where he's able to pursue his hobby and main passion, astronomy. Telescopes, a new invention, are rudimentary and scarce: Arthur must commission his own from one of his tenants, the local blacksmith, Owen. Soon after his wife dies in childbirth, Arthur adopts a foundling whom Owen took in and names her Caroline. Only Owen and his family, including his nephew and apprentice, Finn, know the infant is not Arthur's daughter by blood. Meanwhile, in Bath, a musician named William Herschel, who had to leave Hanover after deserting the army, and his sister, also confusingly named Caroline but known as Lina, are similarly drawn to astronomy: William, like Arthur, is intent on discovering a new planet and devising better telescopes, and Lina acts as his assistant, collaborator, and calculator, as does Caroline for Arthur. (The Herschels are real historical characters.) Now blind from gazing at the sun, Arthur is enraged to learn that William has won the race to find a new planet. Caroline, meanwhile, is smitten with Finn, whom she spies on with a telescope, and Finn loves her as well, but both are too timid to declare their feelings. After Arthur dies after falling from New Park’s roof (or did he jump?), his unscrupulous land agent destroys his will, dispossessing Caroline. Owen and his wife are also evicted and die on the road. Ignorant of one another’s fate, Caroline and Finn each flee Ireland, where rebellion against English landlords is brewing, she to London and he to Edinburgh. The novel is divided by Arthur’s death into two discrete parts, and the second half, dominated by the bloody Irish uprising of 1798, never really gels with the first.
Still, a fascinating look at the particular manias and obsessions of those who study the stars amid turmoil on Earth.