In 1999, Dava Sobel won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Galileo’s Daughter, and I was lucky enough to find a copy in my neighborhood library box. At the time, it was hailed as a “wonderful narrative filled with outsized characters all marching toward a booming climax.” (The San Diego Union-Tribune.) Having finished the book, I’d call the critic’s description “a piece of booming hyperbole.” Still, the book is a good account of Galileo’s persecution by the Catholic Church for seeming to prefer Copernicus’ view of the solar systems, which placed the sun its center, to Ptolemy’s which gave the earth that primacy.
Largely, however, Sobel focuses upon the relationship between the scientist and his daughters — particularly Marie Celeste, who like her sister, was illegitimate and who paid for her father’s sins by being committed by him, with her sister, to life in a convent. The source materials for the book are the letters Marie Celeste wrote to Galileo during her lifetime and which he took pains to preserve so that they are now part of history. From these missiles, we get a picture of a dutiful woman with no power to affect her life except by persuading her father to perform acts of kindness not only for herself, her sister and her brother, but also for the convent where the women lived in extreme poverty.
Certainly when it comes to flattery and a willingness to abase herself to arouse Galileo’s sympathy few, I’m certain, are Marie Celeste’s equals. With each letter, she succeeds in touching her father’s heart and in return is rewarded with gifts and money to see her through difficult times.
I admit reading so much fawning and flattery for a father who condemned his daughters to a sterile life and as a consequence became their sole lifeline, is off-putting. Marie Celeste struck me as a strong, intelligent woman capable of so much more than letter writing. But to read history with 21st Century eyes taints the view. This was an era when all women lived without the power to control their destinies and so were forced to abase themselves to some degree in order to survive. No doubt Galileo loved his daughters for he preserved Marie Celeste’s letters with care. But a perversity in my nature leads me to wonder what became of his? No doubt there is a logical explanation of which I am ignorant. Still, left to myself, I read Marie Celeste’s correspondence and see as much desperation in her lines as I do avowals of love. Did Sobel get the relationship entirely right between father and daughter, I wonder. She’s the expert, of course. Still, as an observer of human nature, which appears little changed despite the passing centuries or mores, I cannot read this daughter’s importuning without sensing her frustration. I ask again, did Sobel get it right? Were women of Galileo’s age so generous of heart that they never resented their jailers?
(Courtesy of yahoo.com)