Nicola here. As a star features strongly in the nativity story it felt quite Christmassy to be talking about celestial bodies today. I love stargazing. Every night when I take Angus out for his bedtime walk I stand in the field at the bottom of the road and look up at the night sky. Most nights it’s cloudy, the British weather being what it is, but on maybe one night in five I can see the Milky Way stretching overhead like a ribbon dusted with diamonds. Seeing it is a magical experience.
At the end of November we were told that one of the greatest celestial spectacles of the century was on the way, the arrival of Comet Ison. Ison was a sungrazing comet, originating from the fabulously named Oort Cloud out on the furthest edges of our galaxy. It was scheduled to pass so close to the sun that it would “graze” it’s surface. It was then supposed to develop a huge tail that would be visible in the night sky with the naked eye, making it one of the most spectacular astronomical sights of the century. Unfortunately Ison flew too close to the sun. It was too small to survive the experience and instead of blazing a trail across the sky, it disintegrated.
Comets have fascinated man throughout history. One of the most famous sightings of a comet tied to a historical event was Halley’s Comet, seen in the skies over England in 1066, just before the Battle of Hastings. The comet is recorded as a terrifying omen of the death of King Harold in the Bayeux Tapestry. In the Middle Ages comets were generally considered to be bad omens, predicting disaster.
Another comet that had a great hold on the popular imagination of the time was the Great Comet of 1811. It was discovered in March 1811 and was visible to the naked eye for 260 days. It is mentioned many times in the records of that year and featured in a wide variety of writings, paintings and other popular culture. Although the science of comets was better understood in the 19th century the sight of one still aroused superstitions of disaster.
The comet was visible during the New Madrid earthquakes in December 1811. A report on the first steamship to descend the Ohio River as it approached the confluence with the Mississippi River states, "December 18, 1811. - The anniversary of this day the people of Cairo and its vicinity should never forget. It was the coming of the first steamboat to where Cairo now is - the New Orleans, Capt. Roosevelt, Commanding. It was the severest day of the great throes of the New Madrid earthquake; at the same time, a fiery comet was rushing athwart the horizon.”
It was also seen as foreshadowing Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the War of 1812, and was referred to in some prints as “Napoleon’s comet.” Later in the century, Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace: “This enormous and brilliant comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world.”
Harriet Martineau, a travel writer, novelist, and political economist was nine years old when the comet appeared and refers in her Autobiography to the fact that every other member of her family could see it but she couldn’t, despite the fact that she had excellent eyesight: “When the great comet of 1811 was attracting all eyes...night after night, the whole family of us went up to the long windows at the top of my father's warehouse; and the exclamations on all hands about the comet perfectly exasperated me,--because I could not see it!”
Rowlandson commemorated the Great Comet in a famous satirical print showing a domestic scene of an
older man, wearing a dressing gown and night-cap, looking out of a window with a spyglass. Whilst he watches the comet he fails to notice the romantic scene that is taking place between his young wife woman and another man.
This was a common theme in satire, that those
with an interest in astronomy are so distracted by other-worldly thoughts that they fail to see what is going on under their noses. The print was published by Thomas Tegg in Cheapside and cost one shilling.
The French even produced a fan, showing a group of people observing the Great Comet and a figure of Venus as a lady with a comet-shaped headdress!
The year 1811 also turned out to be a particularly fine year for wine production, and wine merchants took advantage of the Great Comet to sell “Comet Wine” at a very inflated price, claiming that it was a good vintage because of the celestial influence of the heavens.
One of my very earliest books, The Virtuous Cyprian, features a scene in which the hero and heroine go comet watching. The romantic opportunities of gazing at the night sky are many!
Do you enjoy stargazing and studying the night sky? Have you seen any spectacular comets or shooting stars and have you read any books featuring comets?