Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow ***

Sarah Losh, contemporary of Jane Austen,  was a victim of a crime against women beyond the systematic lack of economic freedom and opportunity so well presented in Jane Austen's novels. This crime was so pervasive, and so long a part of the culture that I doubt if even Jane Austen realized it.

Reading between the lines in the biography of Sarah Losh (The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow), one can not miss the reality that women were conditioned to perform historical suicide. In Jane Austen's case, even though her survivors published her unpublished novels, they also destroyed much of her correspondence.

Jane Austen and Sarah Losh are two sides of the same coin of the suppression of women. They were both single women. Jane Austen was a writer who left a written legacy while being boxed in economically. On the other hand, Sarah Losh was a rich and powerful woman. Her family's substantial wealth was not entailed to the male descendants, so she inherited and controlled a fortune. This fortune enabled her to pursue a life of travel, charity, and architecture.

Even in the 19th century, capital trumped male dominance. Once Ms Losh offered to fund over 1,000 pounds of the cost of a new church, compared to the town council's 30, she had a free hand in the design and construction. This church and the few other buildings that survive are her legacy.

In spite of her financial power and influence, she still followed the dictates of feminine historical suicide: burning her notebooks, papers, and correspondence, like some many women before and after her.

Author Uglow struggles valiantly against the lack of information about Sarah Losh's life. This biography is so much more a history of the Losh family than a biography of Sarah. Just too little remains of Sarah's life, so the book must be filled with accounts of Sarah's relatives and friends, the majority of whom are male (since this is what the historical record offers).

This is a wonderful book for people interested in English history for the early 19th century, maybe especially for the many Jane Austen enthusiasts. However, if you are looking for a biography of the extraordinary Sarah Losh, you might be disappointed by the dearth of fact or feeling. I was constantly wishing that Sarah Losh had instead been a subject of a historical novel.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on May 25, 2014. I received my copy on June 7, 2014.

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