And both daughters spent the rest of their lives there.
They did. And at first, to a modern observer, it just sounds horrific. It sounds like some kind of torture. But then you realize that that was pretty common. It was at least common for young girls to be put in a convent to be educated, to be safe, and to assure their virginity. Of course it wasn't, when you think about what she had to say about the unscrupulous priests.
But it was a common thing in Italy for a girl to go in at a young age, and then at 16, when her parents found her a husband, they would take her out and marry her off.
But of course marriage wasn't in the cards for Galileo's daughters.
No. But I particularly didn't want to view their being in a convent as a sentence of life imprisonment, because I don't think I could have written the book with a feeling of resentment. It wasn't a book about women's issues; it was his story. And what Maria Celeste went through was really a product of those times and not something bad that he did to her.
Other people won't agree with me; there are people who feel that he could have found an easier road for them, that he did not do enough for them. But the relationship was a genuinely loving one; I think there is ample evidence to support that.
By the time of these letters (1623 to 1633), Galileo was already quite famous. Do his scientific works and his stature come up in these letters?
His accomplishments do come up. They don't really talk about science. But he sends her letters he gets from important people, and she loves that. She loves seeing how he is respected in the world. And he also apparently at times asks her to write letters for him—not to compose them but to write them out in her hand or to make copies. So she was very familiar with his correspondence and very proud of him.
Why was this daughter, Maria Celeste, unique among Galileo's three children?
I think she was far brighter than the others. The second child, Arcangela, seems like a really difficult character, and there are no letters from her. Many of the references to her suggest that she was hypochondriacal, difficult to get along with, and probably alcoholic. There is a moment in the story when as the jobs of the convent rotated, it was Arcangela's turn to have charge of the wine cellar. Maria Celeste realizes that this is a formula for disaster and exerts her influence to have Arcangela put in charge of the linens.
There are seven letters from the youngest child, the boy, that survive, but he is an altogether different sort of personality. He has a sense of entitlement, let's call it, and asks for things—big things—in an imperious way: a house, a job, money.
Although both his daughters were nuns, Galileo's discoveries didn't exactly stand him in good stead with the Catholic Church. How did the letters reflect his relationship with the church at that point in his life?
Maria Celeste seems to feel that nothing her father does is really against the Church, which I think is how he felt, as well. When he realizes that the Church is on the verge of banning Copernicus's book, he goes to Rome, not really to fight against the Church but to try to make them see reason—that just because they're theologians doesn't mean that they know about science. The Bible is not an astronomy text, and they should realize this and adopt a different attitude, a less literal interpretation, toward the sections of the Bible that seem to be talking about astronomy.
He was saying, Now that we're getting more evidence about these issues that Copernicus spoke of, don't put him off-limits. If only the Protestants are allowed to read him, then they will figure everything out and the Church will be embarrassed.
Aside from the fact that Galileo had children, was there anything that you found particularly surprising in researching and writing this book?
Just that he didn't have to stop being a Catholic to do what he did. The image of him that I formed as a schoolchild was the modern myth—that he put all that religion and superstition behind him and became the first modern scientist. Well, that's not exactly right.
Throughout his life, he expressed his love of the Church, his belief in God. What does he say when he makes this fantastic discovery with the telescope, when he finds the moons of Jupiter? He thanks God for making him alone the one person in all of history who was the first to see them and know about them.
So in this extraordinary moment of realization, it's also a prayer—a prayer of thanksgiving.