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The Pinecone

Jenny Uglow has created a graceful historical narrative about a forgotten 19th-century heroine/visionary.

January 21, 2013

The Pinecone By Jenny Uglow Farrar, Straus and Giroux 637 pp.

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Reviewed by Susan Salter Reynolds for Barnes & Noble Review

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Writing history is a challenge beset with pitfalls for the writer. Characters and context vie for center stage. Too much emphasis on characters that shape history, and you've got one foot in Hollywood, the other on a banana peel. Too much context, and the authorial ego fills the vacuum with homemade narrative, trumped-up theories, and sleep-inducing detail (years of lonely, dedicated research). It's an awful lot to ask for both.

But if you love history, if you are a reader who looks to history to understand the present, you understand the thrill of the terms "Forgotten Romantic Heroine" and "Visionary." And you look for the work of writers like Jenny Uglow, who navigates past the temptations and traps of historical narrative with grace in The Pinecone.

Uglow first saw the magical church that Sarah Losh created in 1842 when she was a girl growing up in Cumbria. There it must have sat, as it has sat in the village of Wreay, near Carlisle, in Jenny Uglow's mind, as she layered prizewinning biographies of Elizabeth Gaskell, William Hogarth, the engraver Thomas Bewick, and Henry Fielding (and even A Little History of British Gardening) upon it. But how could she write about Sarah Losh – a profoundly educated woman growing up in Regency England, fascinated by the natural history of her own backyard, the medieval history buried in the stones of her family home in Wreay, and the larger world of mathematics, physics, philosophy, biology, geology, art, etc., etc. – before she (Uglow) had lived and studied and made a name for herself in her own chosen field?

Why is the timing of this book in the writer's career so interesting? Because the book explains so much. About how the little things around us, the things that fascinate us as children, the shapes and colors of our own backyards inform the mark we will make on the world. About the swirl of characters in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth cross-pollinated to move art and science forward. About women, property, struggle, and ease. About symbolism and nature; religion and power.

The family of Uglow's heroine were landowners and merchants (much of their fortune was made in ash, or soda). Her father and uncles were radicals, defenders of the poor, believers in the rightness of agrarian life but excited about the future – the mills and factories and railroads that would transform their towns and landscapes. They travelled to learn the latest in mathematics, chemistry, and physics straight from the horse's mouth -- they counted among their friends William Wordsworth, William Paley, Joseph Priestly, John Dawson, William Turner, John Curwen – some names you may know, some you may vaguely recognize. The Regency conversation drew broadly on the past – what to abandon and what to cherish? Mystery, magic, druids, Celtic saints, Greek gods. Even as the poor began their long march into lives of overwhelming, unsustainable drabness, those who could afford to looked forward and back.

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