Jenny Uglow has created a graceful historical narrative about a forgotten 19th-century heroine/visionary.
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Sarah Losh, born in 1786, and her beloved sister, Katharine, chose not to marry. They were tutored in a broad variety of subjects; read the works of Byron, Scott, and Mary Wollestonecraft; believed in the education of women and were not challenged or thwarted in their interests, at least at home. Sarah took an interest in building (the architectural critic Simon Jenkins later called her "a Charlotte Brontë in wood and stone"). She learned how to carve from local artisans; she made the Great Tour, taking copious notes (though her journals have yet to be discovered!) on art and architecture. She was a keen naturalist, and the symbols on her buildings include oak leaves, wheat, butterflies, pomegranates, winged turtles, bees, ravens, scarabs, fir branches, fossils, and owls. The pinecone rose to the top of Losh's natural theology as her signature symbol of regeneration, the mathematical certainty of a future (like the nautilus, a natural example of the Fibonacci sequence, without end). When her old family friend William Thain was killed fighting in Afghanistan in 1842, she planted, in front of the church at Wreay, a Khelat pine seed from the pinecone he sent her before his death.Skip to next paragraph
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After their mother and then, fourteen years later, their father died, the sisters ran their own home and their considerable holdings. Like their father and uncles, they were pillars of their community, funding and building a chapel and then a school. The sisters traveled, and then, in 1835, Katharine died; Sarah was bereft. She threw herself into building the famous church of Wreay. Constructed at a time when Gothic cathedrals were defending the honor of the rapidly weakening Anglican Church, Losh's church was Norman, early Christian, Romanesque, pantheistic, classical. She carved the font and the candlesticks herself. In nearby Carlisle and Newcastle, the factories belched and the mills and mines took lives.
Let it be known that I am a fan of Jenny Uglow. I share her belief that land is the basis for history and nature is the fountain, the source of culture. After years of struggling with British literature (taught, in my day, as though Americans were just learning to read and write in the twentieth century), I finally understand how fundamental land, specifically the ownership of land, was and is to the British character, a driving force in politics and culture, an obsession, leading in its mildest (but still competitive form) to gardening.
Uglow builds Losh from the ground up, so to speak. Once her subject, who died in 1853, is fixed in your mind, you will look at pinecones quite differently – their sturdy promise, their rich complexity – and you may think that you will begin to read more in the evenings, maybe study a language, entertain a childhood dream, leave something enigmatic behind when you finally, gracefully, slip away.
Susan Salter Reynolds is a writer and book critic. She is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times.