The title is misleading. The subject of this biography is not, in fact, Galileo’s daughter Virginia (or his other daughter Livia). It is a biography of Galileo himself. As such, it is an interesting approach.
Galileo’s three children were born to his married mistress. Due to their bastard status, the girls would not be good marriage candidates. Instead, Galileo paid a dowry to the church and his young daughters were taken into the convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, first as charges, later as cloistered nuns. Virginia became Suor Maria Celeste and Livia became Suor Arcangela. Maria Celeste took well to this sheltered life, becoming her father’s pen-pal, confidant, intellectual and spiritual sounding board, and doctor. It is the letters between Maria Celeste and Galileo (only her end of the conversations is extant) that Sobel uses in writing the biography.
Unfortunately, the fit is not quite right. At times, the letters seem shoehorned into the narrative. Rarely do they shed more light onto the man who was so hated by the church, apologies were not given until 2000, long after the church had accepted his findings as facts. Part of the blame must fall on Suor Maria Celeste’s situation. As a cloistered nun, even the most vital period of her letters (when she was running her father’s household on his behalf) is made lesser by simple fact that all of her information is second-hand. She may have been keeping his books, but all of her news of the goings-on had to be delivered to her by those on the outside. Had she been able to more freely move through the city, imagine what a resource her letters would have been. Among discussions of wine going bad in its casks, she could also have shared the mood of the people, the general attitude to his predicament, and perhaps some pertinent advice.
As it stands, Galileo’s Daughter is a decent read but a disappointing biography. By trying to force these letters into the narrative, Sobel has left us with something that is neither here nor there. It’s certainly not the biography it purports to be, and it is an unnecessarily self-limited biography of its true subject.
Fascinating Fact: Galileo bought a special dispensation for his son to legitimize him as his heir. Another example of the crappy hand women have been dealt throughout history. While Suor Maria Celeste was content in the convent, her sister was quite miserable, yet had to endure it, as she outlived her father and both siblings.