In 1842, a wealthy heiress called Sarah Losh built a church in Wreay (rhymes with ‘near’, apparently), close to Carlisle. Coupling carvings of caterpillars with turtle gargoyles and a spattering of pinecones, she was, stylistically, half a century before her time. As a female architect and builder, she was still more precocious.

The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow is the true, largely forgotten story of one of nineteenth-century England’s most forward-looking architects and – paradox standing – antiquarians. Sarah and her sister Katharine inherited land from their parents when their brother transpired to be ‘slow’. Sarah, the more ambitious of the sisters, tried her hand at various pursuits, always inspired by her uncle James, a barrister who had been a familiar face in republican circles of the late eighteenth century. He emerges as one of the more complex characters of the story.

It was noted in her own day that Sarah cultivated the friendship of Unitarians, Episcopalians, Catholics and others. She learned Latin and Greek, and in her thirst for knowledge Uglow is convincing in viewing her as proleptic of George Eliot’s Dorothea in Middlemarch. But like all women at this date, she found that doors were closed to her ambitions. The only way forward entailed absolute independence, and that meant on a personal level as well. At least partially in the interest of keeping their land in their own name, both sisters remained single for life.

Pooling family money and funds accrued through the alkali works (and later iron and railways, too) of Newcastle, Sarah established her church on a site that once housed a defensive tower. It had served to protect the region not only from the Scots to the North, she wagered, but from the brutes of Inglewood Forest as well. This great mass of land, stretching from Carlisle to Penrith, was the legendary stomping ground of Sir Gawain and the true home, so some believed, of Robin Hood.

Uglow’s fascinating story thrives on literary interest. Had not the family kept such varied company and Sarah not lost herself in the world of fantasy and myth, it’s unlikely this biography would prove so worthwhile.

Wordsworth and Coleridge were among her family friends. The most interesting chapters in Uglow’s book chart the Losh sisters’ travels through Italy, which they took in at the same time as the Shelleys, with whom Sarah shared a distaste for Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’. The painting’s only redeeming feature, she quipped to shock, were the evils incarnate. Unexpected details such as these bring her personality to life. Uglow compares Sarah’s experience of Pompeii and Paestum to Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, which was published a year after she travelled there.

But Sarah’s kingdom – the church that she built – survived the great era of change heralded by Victoria’s accession. It is a lasting testimony to a woman who seemingly did her best otherwise to vanish from our landscape, destroying her notes and sketches and leaving no progeny on the map. It is her pinecone, ancient symbol of regeneration, enlightenment, fertility.

In the face of limited sources, Uglow has woven a deceptively seamless story of her life. Having recourse to Sarah Losh’s family history and to the historical climate of the North of England does not feel like filling in blanks, and makes the book less of a biography and more of a story, founded upon fact, but fuelled by the world of fantasy and myth that inspired Losh to discover a career and monument of her own.

The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow is published by Faber (£20)

Tags: Art, Biography, Coleridge, History, Non-fiction, Poetry, Shelley, Victorian, Wordsworth