One-sentence summary: though it has the title Galileo's Daughter, this is an ordinary, relatively superficial, definitely uncritical biography of Galileo himself, with its only "innovation" being the interwoven portions of his daughter's 124 extant letters.
A little background. Galileo had two daughters and a son by Marina Gamba of Venice: Virginia, Livia, and Vincenzio. He supported all three of his children, and eventually had the Grand Duke of Tuscany legitimize Vincenzio as his son. Virginia and Livia were consigned to a convent, "for their safety," and because Galileo thought their marriage prospects as bastard children were not good. They became Suor Maria Celeste and Suor Arcangela. Ms. Sobel perpetuates the notion that Marina eventually married a man named Giovanni Bartoluzzi, and that Galileo had a cordial relationship with them, purchasing lens blanks for his telescopes from Giovanni. However, Marina Bartoluzzi is probably a different Marina, and was entrusted with the care of young Vincenzio after mother Marina's death in 1612. If that's true, Marina Gamba may have suffered the same fate as Suor Maria Celeste—death through neglect by the man in her life who held the purse strings—though we'll never know.
Feminist history? Nope. It's really just a standard, textbook review of Galileo's life, without a rigorous presentation of his scientific work, yet without a real contribution of the feminine or family point of view that the title promises. Suor Maria Celeste's letters are dropped in at appropriate chronological moments, but only where they fit into Galileo's well-trodden biography—a biography that has been done by other authors before Ms. Sobel, and I hope better. What I wanted to get more to the heart of was: why did Galileo put his daughters in a convent? He worked very hard to get them in before the canonical age of sixteen, and called in a few favors to do it. What else could he have put that considerable effort toward? What were the other alternatives at the time? Had any fathers of illegitimate children done better for their daughters during this time period? Why did he not re-think his decision as they approached the canonical age—when they had to either take their vows or leave? What was Maria Celeste's life in the convent like, and what could her life have been like had a different choice been made? Could Virginia and Livia have run his household, as spinster daughters? Could they have been married to someone decent in the merchant class, or a town butcher, baker, or candlestick maker? Even though Maria Celeste's letters don't elucidate her specific circumstance, a more energetic historian might have fleshed out that world for us based on documented reports of similar young women in similar circumstances. It would have helped us to see what kind of man Galileo was, given the choice he did make. Similarly, the reasons for not marrying Marina are tossed out as if they're immutable: professors don't marry (really?); his Venetian-nobility contacts wouldn't like the fact that he had illegitimate children (why?); Marina was of too low a class for him to marry (did this never happen at the time?). The impression a cynical reader finds between the lines (though Ms. Sobel would never say it) is that Galileo's ambition was always return to Tuscany as the Duke's Mathematician, and he was perpetually preparing to dump Marina as soon as the call came.
Where is the original angle of this book? Even wikipedia will tell you that Galileo put the girls in a convent because they were illegitimate and he thought their prospects for marriage were therefore poor. Even Wikipedia will tell you the Rules of the St. Clare of Assisi (female Franciscan) convents. Ms. Sobel's only addition to the historical narrative seems to be her speculation that the impending inquisition may have made Galileo hurry (and then not re-think) the decision to send his daughters to convents.
No critical analysis of Galileo. To me, the most important line in the book is Galileo's own admission that he is "full of self hatred" after Maria Celeste's death. THIS is what I want the book to be about. Sobel passes over that massive line with zero commentary. And that's because the whole book is an overly reverential view of a scientist, not an attempt to flesh out anything new about the man. Ms. Sobel treats this line as a commentary solely on the deep affection between father and daughter.
Scientific details are passed over, and even documentary ones. Given that it's not a feminist contribution, and it's not an exploration of Galileo as a father, and that it's really just a biography, there should have been more scientific detail. Otherwise, this is no better than a high school textbook, or a fan website. Why is Galileo's version of the spyglass (later named the telescope) better than Hans Lippershey's model? If his refinement was in the lenses, why were his lenses better? Was it the Murano glass, or his personal grinding? Did he grind the lenses himself from the blanks he purchased? Did he ignore the moon's influence on tides simply through his zeal to bolster Copernicus's model of the earth moving around the sun, or was he unaware of the moon's influence? How could he have clung so resolutely to the "sloshing" explanation of tides, given that his model wasn't fully predictive? Even medical details are poetic rather than factual: in the end, Sobel says that Suor Maria Celeste succumbed to dysentery because she had literally worried herself into a state of weakness over Galileo—that she died of a broken heart.
Maria Celeste's life was a literal prison. Her sister, Livia, lived longer than she did, but fared worse emotionally. There are hints at Suor Arcangela's depression, at her possible resentment of her father's decision to the point of perhaps refusing to write letters to him, but Ms. Sobel doesn't investigate further. (I realize there's no evidence for Livia's feelings in the historical record, but there must be recorded observations about other, unrelated conscripted Clare nuns.) The sisters' only outside contact was through an iron grill, separating them from their visitors. Their vow of poverty meant they were sleeping without warm blankets (unless they could beg them from their families), on hard cots, consistently without enough food, depending on alms. I'm fascinated by Maria Celeste's ability to become a truly pious nun—hardworking, obedient, humble, generous, and loving—in spite of her conditions. That's perhaps a more interesting story than a superficial rehash of the life of a seemingly "faultless" Galileo. In yet another bit of flimsy research, Sobel tells us that one of the convent's sisters' brothers bequeathed his estate to the convent before Maria Celeste's death, with an income and an endowed fund to take care of the staff who tended the property. Yet we know nothing about whether that income improved their living conditions. If Sobel couldn't find out about this particular event and its outcome, I would have liked to have heard of other similar historical examples. But Sobel has not researched at a level that would bring other historical material to bear on this situation.
This book is reasonably good, but not remarkable. The fact that it's so popular indicates to me that there's a supply problem: people are interested in popular books about the history of science, which is great, and there's not enough of it out there. But this particular effort seems to me to suffer a bit from shallow research. Ms. Sobel's real contribution is the translation of 124 letters (which she kindly uploaded to the "Galileo Project
" website). But that contribution does not a book make. There are too many missed opportunities, and there's no new view of Galileo from the daughter's perspective, or from the historical perspective of what family structure was like at the time. I wish this book had been more substantive in any research dimension: daughters in convents, illegitimate children, marriages between classes, Galileo's science, Galileo's contemporary critics—anything, pick one. My preference would have been for Ms. Sobel to focus the family issues, since surely other biographers have done the science and inquisition better, and since Maria Celeste's letters are the conceit of the book. I suspect that Galileo's "self-hatred" was because he realized that he had put his daughters in the convent for expediency's sake and then essentially left them there to rot, distracted by his own greatness and place in history. While he was doling out a scudi here or there to the sisters, giving money when poor Maria Celeste quietly begged, or a basket of thrushes and quails when she pleaded, or a blanket here or there, he had utterly failed to realize the malnourishment and health issues of his daughter (she had lost most of her teeth), which he could have mitigated at least financially, since he had failed to spend any of his vast brain power trying to arrange a way out for her and her sister earlier on.