After World War II the writing of history was strongly influenced by a French group whose methods became known as the Annales school. Instead of focusing on the prominent, it dedicated itself to recounting the lives and circumstances of ordinary people, the seedbed as it were from which the tall trees grew. It filled in a rich background and provided stimulating ideas but, deprived of the great bearers of story that some part of us requires, the ordinary can come to seem just that.
Brilliant writing can be a way out; more specifically, writing and a sensibility able to make these unknowns into figures of resonance and depth. Two English examples emerge: Ronald Blythe’s “Akenfield,” which made the reader almost literally a neighbor of the Suffolk villagers he studied, and Adam Thorpe, whose fictional “Ulverton” provided a shivering sense of the passing of history in its stories of a dozen ordinary but vividly configured rural figures, each of whom lived at various times ranging from the Middle Ages to the present.
In “The Pinecone” Jenny Uglow makes something of a similar attempt, less successfully, to involve the reader in the lives of the relatively obscure; in this case a rising circle of industrialists and entrepreneurs in the late 18th and early 19th century in northern England. They came up in the Industrial Revolution. By contrast with France’s insurgent middle class, which channeled much of its revolutionary impetus into turbulent political change, the English version concentrated upon building factories, bridges, and fortunes, while politics shifted more gradually.
“The Pinecone” tells of the extensive Losh clan of Cumberland and their many business and social connections which, starting with extensive land holdings, made fortunes in mining, manufacturing, and railroads. Their circle, which included Wordsworth, Coleridge, Carlyle, the political reformer Henry Brougham, and others who blended financial success with reformist politics, came to be called Radicals, though of a decidedly moderate kind (embracing, for instance, the French Revolution until it turned extreme). Like others of the rising middle class, many were keenly interested in scientific discovery and experimenting; not a few engaged in it themselves.
In an earlier book, “The Lunar Men,” Uglow treated a similar theme. There the figures, self-inventors of a new world and new ways, were a vivid lot: Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, and a wealthy businessman who tried to apply science to marriage by bringing up two little girls to suit his own ideas so that one of them, when grown, would make him a compliant and trouble-free wife. They proved so rebellious as teenagers that after providing them with substantial dowries, he married them off, writing it all off, no doubt, as just another failed experiment.
With one or two exceptions, few of the many dozens of figures in “The Pinecone” have any similar distinctness. They comprise a catalogue, a list of entrepreneurs, clergy, lawyers, and landowners of related interests and views living in the Carlisle and Newcastle region. Collectively they are portrayed as a cohort of change, but they become a stupefying blur of name after name after name: a forest without trees.
Uglow does indeed intend to organize it all around a redoubtable figure. She is Sarah Losh, heir to the Losh fortune, beneficiary of the enterprises founded and run by uncles and cousins, and from her estate in the village of Wreay, grande dame of the region. Intellectually avid, interested in all that was going on around her, friends with everyone, she focused her particular energy and passion on a series of idiosyncratic architectural projects.
The centerpiece was a church, which she not only designed but whose construction she supervised, day by day. It was a rejection of the Gothic style then in vogue, and a turning to older, more vernacular models harking back to Norman and Saxon times. Its idiosyncrasy, though, was mainly on the inside, ornamentation drawn from a dizzying variety of sources: Roman, Greek, Hindu, Egyptian, Buddhist, and her own private symbolism (the pinecones of the title, signifying rebirth). All this quite overshadows any Christian symbolism, a feature that distressed the local bishop who acquiesced, nevertheless, overborne by Losh’s grand status and determination.
Uglow provides all manner of photographs and descriptions. She cites Nikolaus Pevsner, the architecture critic, who praised the church as remarkable, and the writer Simon Jenkins who called Losh “a Charlotte Brontë of wood and stone.” Uglow herself compares Losh to Wordsworth. Despite all this it is hard to avoid the thought that the author is pushing matters to set up an unusual figure as an emblem of feminine achievement among a class of innovators who, however open-minded did not give women much of a place.
This is less of a problem, though, than Uglow’s inability to write of Losh from any interior perspective. She details a good deal of what Losh did — not really, from this distance, all that much — and, in the few letters that remain, what she thought. Not quite who she was. A portrait done from the outside; a personage no doubt, but not a character.