Biography as fiction and fiction as biography.

Two amazing books have just joined the many others on the ‘have now read this’ pile. One is a book by Jenny Uglow called The Pinecone. First published in 2012, I am reading a paperback version but I won’t bore you with the details of why that is. The second book is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. They make an excellent sychronized read. Both set in the early part Nineteenth Century, they are both about two sisters and in many ways complement each other even though one is a novel and the other a biography.

To start, then, with the biography. scan0007The Pinecone is the story of Sarah Losh, her family and her sister Katherine. The Losh family were an important and wealthy family spread over the belt of northern England that comprises the Lake District in the West and all the way across the country to the East Coast. Innovators and industrialists, Sarah Losh’s family had built up wealth in shipping, iron works and the production of alkali. This last, using a French method, is how they became wealthy. The main factories and places of industry were in and around Newcastle upon Tyne, where iron works and shipping (and therefore alkali) all had a natural symbiotic relationship.

Sarah Losh, however, grew up near to Carlisle in a small town called Wreay, where they had an extensive and expanding estate called Woodside. As time went on, one might have assumed such beautiful, well-bred and wealthy ladies would have found husbands and settled down to a life of dull and undemanding domesticity, undemanding because they would have had servants to ‘do’ for them and dull because both girls had lively and interested minds, and were unusually well educated in comparison to other women of the time. The Losh family were benefactors to the local community, providing a school-house and subsidising a teacher/curate for the locals and finally in the latter part of the century, building, but not just building, designing and managing the building of a fine, unusual and delightful Church. In The Buildings of England series, the volume about Cumberland and Westmorland, Nikolaus Pevsner says:

Who are the best, or what is the best in church architecture during the years of Queen Victoria? The first building to call out, one introduces with hesitation; for it is a crazy building without any doubt, even if it is a most impressive and in some ways amazingly forward-pointing building: the church at Wreay which Miss Sarah Losh designed,c.1835 as a memorial to her sister [Katherine].

[My italics]. This comes from the Introduction. He goes on to describe the building in quite some detail later in the volume, but Jenny Uglow, who also clearly knows the place as well, puts the whole thing into a context and gives it another layer of meaning; for the two sisters were inseparable and Sarah’s grief at the loss of her life-time companion was quite terrible.

The Pinecone gives a wonderful feel of what society was like in the North of England, when the railways were just arriving and the Industrial Revolution was changing England forever. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times, it depended on where you nestled or clung in the strata of society. Families like the Loshes, providers of work and therefore security were numerous, but the poor were there in abundance also. The Losh family were familiar with the Wordsworths, Shelley, the Gaskins and many of the most prominent people in Cumbrian Society, they lived in interesting times.

It is distinctly possible that the family solicitor, named in the book was a distant relative of mine, a detail which added delight in an already entirely delightful and engrossing book.

scan0006The novel, The Signature of All Things is set at roughly the same period, though in Philadelphia. The Whittaker family, on their estate White Acre, are also exceedingly wealthy. In fact Henry Whittaker, who began his life in England stealing cuttings from the rare specimens being collected (and jealously guarded from other plant hunters) by Sir Joseph Banks at Kew Gardens, is now the richest man in the district and he also has two girls; though they are not blood sisters, Alma and Prudence have been brought up as sisters, both of them educated, schooled and instructed almost as if they were boys. Not for them ‘polite botany’; they knew exactly how plants and indeed animals reproduced. Alma, the clever one could read Latin, Greek and French; she could hold her own in conversations with some of the most learned men who came to dine at the house, Prudence was more reserved which was quite all right because she was utterly beautiful and while Alma had a beautiful mind no one could describe her as anything but plain to look at. Her mother, Beatrix, had passed to her the cataloguing, organisation and selection of books for the Library, a somewhat misguided decision as it turned out.

This is where the Novel has it over the Biography every time, for it contains passages of intimate detail the veracity of which no biographer could possibly hope to maintain and descriptions of licentious eroticism which no autobiographer could conceivably wish to reveal.

On the very day that Alma discovers self-gratification, aided by the avid reading of a particularly unsuitable book, she attends one of her father’s dinners and is reduced to a blushing mute, while her erstwhile silent sister takes on the evening’s ‘speaker’ on the subject of race in the form of a sharp discussion regarding breeds of sheep and races of men, the Professor holding the popular view that all races, especially the Negro were inferior to the white race. It is a most marvellous passage of writing, sadly too long to quote here.

Honestly, I can hardly recommend these books more highly, and strongly advise that they are read in tandem which I understand some people regard as a deplorable practice, but which from time to time is a really profitable exercise.

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