What drew me to this book was its subtitle: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine—Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary. I thought to myself, “why haven’t I heard of this person?”
Sarah Losh (1785-1853) was part of a large and prosperous family who lived in Wreay, in Cumbria (northern England). As I learned from Ms. Uglow’s history, Sarah never married, but enjoyed a full and exciting life of the mind, traveling and working with her sister Katharine (her closest friend, like Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra). She consistently stood up for and helped the poor and the vulnerable in her community, and after her death the townspeople planted a tree in her honor, the tribute they thought would be most fitting.
Sadly, Sarah ordered her own papers and letters to be destroyed, so Ms. Uglow reconstructs her history by painting a picture of her extended family and the cultural milieu of Cumbria in particular and late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century England and Europe in general.
Sarah’s crowning achievement is the unique (to say the least) village church at Wreay, which she redesigned herself, choosing everything from the stone to the timber to the glass. She even helped to carve the baptistry and the candlesticks. The church features lecterns in the shapes of an eagle and a stork; images of ammonites and other fossils, pinecones, lotuses, and even bats! I did wish the book’s pictures were in color so that I could get a better sense of the church’s tone — I rather doubt I’ll be in Cumbria any time soon.
A few odds and ends that I loved (and which made me realize that, for books like The Pinecone, I should really invest in these):
- The Bishop of Carlisle, Dean Milner, wore wigs, which, according to his granddaughter, “were known in the family as ‘Highty, Tighty, and Scrub; the first for London and State occasions; the second for official appearances in Carlisle; and Scrub for home wear'” (72).
- Sarah’s father John belonged to a club, and the men, over a very long sitting, would each drink three bottles of port, except “‘On rare occasions, wrote Lonsdale, ‘such as a victory by Nelson or the dashing Cochrane, the fourth bottle to each man was held to be the right mode of rendering the fact historical'” (74).
- One thing that struck me was how forcefully and effectually Sarah’s uncle, James Losh, advocated for the education and intellectual advancement of his nieces, and his admiring praise for Sarah’s many accomplishments. (For instance, she studied Italian and French, could sight-read Latin, and she studied ancient Greek three hours every day until she could translate it almost at sight; Ms. Uglow compares her to Eliot’s Dorothea ).
- A book that was popular in the nineteenth century and so good that Byron “allegedly wept with jealousy when he read it” (209): Thomas Hope’s Anastasius. I just looked for it on Goodreads, and there isn’t a single rating or review.
- Instead of gargoyles, Sarah’s church features a crocodile, a cross between a snake and a plesiosaur, a winged turtle, and a dragon. The dragon’s mouth spouts smoke from the boiler in the church below. Seriously. Her church has a fire-breathing dragon.
- I love the profusion of treatises with unassuming titles in the nineteenth century. Ms. Uglow does an excellent job of showcasing some of those titles, as well as the nineteenth century’s numerous amateur societies that discussed and spurred advancements in the arts and sciences. I wonder, do blogs today take up some of these societies’ functions? Are we a dispersed Society for the Advancement of Reading?
Full of interesting anecdotes and offering a sweeping overview of this fascinating period in English history, The Pinecone is an excellent foray into reviving the memory of an extraordinary woman.
Have you read any great nonfiction books lately? Do you know of any forgotten female figures in need of a revival?