Saturday, December 28, 2013
Back in 1982, when Jennifer S. Uglow issued her ambitious “International Dictionary of Women’s Biography,” aiming to satisfy “a desire to look at women’s strength in action, rather than (as is so often done) to lament their oppression as passive victims,” the 19th-century Cumbrian architect Sarah Losh, with little more than a country church, a schoolhouse and a sexton’s cottage to her credit, didn’t make the cut. Nor did Losh answer Uglow’s “request for heroines” by the time a third edition of the dictionary appeared, published in the United States in 1999 as “The Northeastern Dictionary of Women’s Biography.” There, if she’d qualified, Losh would have shared a page with the “American feminist poet” Audre Lorde, the “Italian actress” Sophia Loren, the “Spanish soprano” Victoria de los Angeles and the “English trade unionist” Dame Anne Loughlin. In 1999, not even the California architect Julia Morgan, with numerous commissions for public buildings and her splendid Hearst Castle at San Simeon, qualified.
But as her biographical dictionary was wending its way through successive editions with the assistance of new editors, Uglow turned to writing full biographies: works on George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Henry Fielding, William Hogarth and Samuel Johnson appeared between 1987 and 1998 — by “Jenny Uglow,” who quickly revealed herself to be one of the most resourceful and innovative writers in the genre. Her latest, “The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine — Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary,” is both a return to that early quest to document “women’s strength in action” and a continuation of more recent efforts to capture the “energy and ideas that flowed through the age” that Uglow has already explored in “The Lunar Men,” her portrait of a group of amateur experimenters at the dawn of the industrial era that included James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley.
This new tale begins in Tolkienesque fashion with a meeting of village elders, the Twelve Men of Wreay, on Candlemas Eve, 1836, to consider a humble petition put forward by Sarah Losh, then 50 years old and unmarried, yet the wealthiest resident and largest landowner in her rustic corner of Cumbria, a dozen miles from the Scottish border. “Miss Losh,” as she is identified in village records, requests leave to make improvements on the road through town where it passes the church and burial ground, rerouting the lane to expand the churchyard.
But Uglow, adept at shifting time frames, has already let us know that Sarah Losh’s petition was successful, that in fact it was mere subterfuge, enabling her six years hence to construct a work of “great genius,” in the estimation of the Pre-Raphaelite poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a new church of yellow sandstone. Its style anticipated the Romanesque Revival, yet it harked back to other pasts: trimmed with turtles and dragons as gargoyles, an eagle atop its belfry and with an interior of “strange stained glass, bright leaves on black backgrounds, kaleidoscopic mosaics, alabaster cutouts of fossils.” Most striking was the presence, everywhere, of pinecones — carved into the roof beams, the walls and even the front door-latch, “an ancient symbol of regeneration, fertility and inner enlightenment.”
As in the best biographies, the question becomes not what the subject will do, but how and why she will do it. The answers are difficult to determine. Losh destroyed most of her personal papers, and the manor house she inhabited at Wreay was cleared of its contents a century ago. As Uglow writes, Losh “left stones and wood, not letters, for us to read.” But gaps in the evidence inspire Uglow to trace a narrative of causation that “spiraled outwards,” like her subject’s favorite symbol, from the little town of Wreay and Losh’s cluster of eccentric stonework creations.
We learn that Losh’s collective works “fashioned a whole landscape of memory,” both personal and historical. She was the oldest of the three legitimate children of John Losh, himself the oldest of four surviving brothers, “born into a new age of improvement, science, law, industry and reform,” who made their fortune in an alkali works, and later from iron foundries and railways, at the industrial hub in Newcastle. Possessed of “a radical, adventurous streak,” the brothers traveled widely and counted the Wordsworths among their close associates.
Sarah’s brother, Joseph, the “longed-for male heir,” proved “severely backward” and never managed to live on his own. Instead, Sarah and her sister, Katharine, became their father’s heirs, evolving, Uglow writes, into examples of “how the industrial revolution made some women independent.” With steady, sumptuous incomes, the sisters discovered that “you did not have to marry, lose your name and settle down to domestic life.” They refused all suitors, preferring a life together, taking European holidays, pursuing their interest in art and architecture and enjoying “a certain freedom.” But by 1836, both parents, the uncle to whom she was closest and her beloved sister had all died, causing Sarah Losh, who wore modified mourning garb for the rest of her life, to “burst into years of creativity as if trying to save something she had lost.”
At the same time, Losh’s passion for antiquities ignited. With her sister, she had already engaged in the craze for turning buildings “back in time,” constructing a “Pompeian court” and a thatched cottage on the grounds of the family estate. In the summer of 1835, along with the rest of England, Losh learned of the astonishing discovery of the lost church of St. Piran’s by a Cornish antiquarian. The crude stone oratory, built at the seaside over what was said to be the grave of the patron saint of Cornwall, had been covered by sand dunes for centuries. High winds had exposed the structure, but only for a brief time; in little more than a year, it would be covered again. Losh adapted the design of St. Piran’s for a mortuary chapel at Wreay, and began making plans for her church.
Called St. Mary’s, it wasn’t a copy of anything. Losh rejected the popular Gothic “medievalizing” trend of her day, borrowed elements of Italian and Byzantine architecture she may have seen on her travels and embellished them with “symbolic carvings” that “have no parallel at all,” according to the mid-20th-century architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner. With her “furious energy,” Losh proved a galvanizing contractor, conscripting villagers and craftsmen from neighboring towns to implement her designs. But she may have taken the most satisfaction from the ornamental carving she herself did in alabaster, notably candlesticks shaped like lotus blossoms.
What can be learned of Sarah Losh’s interior life from the spare evidence left in wood and stone? Uglow suggests that the church’s lack of a prominent crucifix and the absence of any renderings of Mary reveal Losh to be a deist. And perhaps her theology strayed even farther from convention: the “pantheistic imagery” in stained glass windows that “shone with flowers and plants from past millennia” rather than “saints and miracles,” Uglow writes, made Losh’s construction “a defiant celebration of life and art, summoned by her own decree.”
In religion and in biography, some mysteries are best left unplumbed, and Uglow is wise to cut her speculation short. Her narrative, if not “a poem in three dimensions,” as she describes Losh’s church, stands as an elegant and instructive rendering of a life, a place and a time.
Megan Marshall is the author of the forthcoming biography “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life.”
Thursday, December 26, 2013
Monday, December 23, 2013
Saturday, December 21, 2013
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Monday, December 16, 2013
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
one of the best books about the new left:Family Circle:Kathy Boudin and the Aristocracy of the left,quote from The New Criterion review
Problems of identity loomed large among these idealistic and privileged youth. They disdained conventional careers and the expectations of their parents. Their inchoate personal ambitions and diffuse but intensely felt grievances found expression in political extremism. In a peculiarly contradictory fashion, they longed for both an authentic, freely chosen community and the pursuit of heroic, individualistic self-assertion. To compensate for class guilt they desperately and grotesquely sought to identify with and imitate the real underdogs: blacks, Vietcong, Latin American peasants, and guerillas. The venerable American quest for self-realization thus became thoroughly politicized. For a while they seemed to succeed, illustrating what stupendous folly struggling for the unity of the personal and political begets.