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3.9 out of 5 stars
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3.9 out of 5 stars
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 August 2012
The man of clay that AN Wilson throws onto his storytelling wheel in "The Potter's Hand" is the great Josiah Wedgwood, but this is much more than a historic telling of his life. Indeed, Josiah already has a thriving business at the start of the book. What Wilson does particularly impressively is to put Wedgwood's achievement and works into the context of the politics and social philosophy of the times, sandwiched between the two great revolutions in American and France. In order to do this, Wilson has to play slightly loose with artistic licence by altering dates and time lines a bit, but it works well. He also balances the real historic figures with several key figures of his own invention and where the historic figures don't quite fit with his narrative, he alters their ages and invents "facts" to the benefit of the fictional narrative.

Wilson's approach is a broad one, following a number of sub-plots throughout the book. Indeed, poor old Josiah often seems to float around on the edge of his own story for much of the book as Wilson concentrates on his nephew, Tom Byerley, who would run the family business after the period of this novel, and the entirely fictional characters of Caleb and Heffie Bowers and Blue Squirrel, a Cherokee girl that Tom meets while seeking to negotiate the supply of American kaolin to meet the order for the Catherine the Great. Also central to the book is Wedgwood's oldest daughter, Sukey, whose later children included Charles Darwin.

The result is a novel of ideas ranging from colonialism, slavery, the welfare of workers, class, religious belief, industrialisation and, with Charles Darwin's grandfather, the lecherous old Dr Darwin as the family doctor, early thoughts on evolution.

This impressive and thoughtful breadth of approach does come a cost though. I never really felt that I got to know Josiah as a character throughout the book. Wilson doesn't really explore the depth of his genius or innovation to any great extent. Sure we are told but never really shown. Also the various sub plots can lay frustratingly latent for long periods of the book, particularly the fascinating story line of the fictional Blue Squirrel. Her story alone would have made for a compelling novel but here gets a little lost. There are also some troubling conflicts between some of the ideas. Blue Squirrel is, in her own way, touched by the skill and one might even say genius of Josiah which seems to underplay his role and for all the hugely interesting early thoughts on evolution, the undoubtedly great Josiah is the result of high levels of family inter-marriage which seems to run counter to the survival of the fittest ideas that are emerging.

At other times though the conflicts themselves are fascinating. There's irony that the Frog Service produced for Catherine the Great depicted rural idealistic scenes of Britain at a time when the producer is doing much to destroy this with the beginnings of the industrial revolution.

There's also a slight tendency towards famous name dropping. To a large extent this is inevitable as Josiah knew and interacted with a wide range of people who we know of today - Stubbs, Coleridge, Watt, to name but a few. However some of these seem to be slightly forced into the narrative in ways that don't add a great deal to the central story.

The quality of the writing is superb though and Josiah Wedgwood was a fascinating man at a pivotal historic period and Wilson brings these two together well. You get a strong sense of the personal struggles of family life. It's a wonder that anyone achieved anything given the doses of laudanum that they were all taking for various ailments. If you are looking for a broad stroke historic novel that addresses the great ideas of the time, then this will be very much your cup of tea, served in a doubtless exquisite Wedgwood tea service. I would have found it more compelling though if there had been a stronger central core to the book, be that Blue Squirrel, Sukey or even the old man himself.
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on 8 November 2012
I didn't realise immediately that the author of this book had such important connections with Josiah Wedgwood. A.N.Wilson's father was Managing Director of Josiah Wedgwood Ltd. Wilson knows the distinctive Potteries accent and this gives such credibility to the minor characters: Caleb and Effie. But also to Old Wooden leg himself who at intimate moments speaks the dialect. A.N.Wilson has a reputation for thorough research which means I trust him in this story. Josh's relationship, as a very superior tradesman, with the aristocrats in London and in Staffordshire is one of the most valued aspects of this wonderful story. The book is quite densely printed so thanks Amazon Kindle for enlarged printing enabling me to get through it quickly and easily
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on 22 September 2013
Living in north Staffordshire I was looking forward to this book, but I found it oddly disappointing. Several things jarred with me
The overuse of local dialect was an irritant, some folk out there will have difficulty in understanding it fully.
I know it was written in modern times, but the use of the "F" word and the rather poorly described sex scenes were wholly unnecessary.
The interludes where the action jumped forwards 20 years made it all the more confusing.
On the positive side it gave a good account of the man Josiah Wedgwood and the spirit of the age.
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on 3 January 2013
This novel is based on the later years of Josiah Wedgwood’s life. His leg was amputated so he was known by most of his workers as ‘Old Wooden Leg’, but his disability had little impact on his energy, drive or imagination. A brilliant potter himself, he established a company that became a by-word for quality and innovation. This novel is a mixture of family saga, history and adventure yarn and Wilson knows his source, his father being the managing director of the Wedgewood Pottery.

This is a splendid story, huge in its scope, which improves the understanding of the age while giving insight into the principal characters. This was the Age of Reason, and also the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Both are well-presented and explained in this fine book. Some readers may find the absence of speech marks, or the strong Staffordshire accent, distracting, but these are minor quibbles in a major work. More important is the fine writing. For example, at the death of one of Josiah’s many children, Sukey takes up her Oboe:
‘The reedy oboe’s voice, a sad deep-throated bird, filled the silent house ..... Words could not have lifted them. The oboe skipped, sang, led onwards all who heard it with sounds which did not give hope, but which defied despair.’ Great stuff.
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on 27 December 2012
A.N.Wilson's historical novel about the family of Josiah Wedgwood, intrigues with its rich analysis of material success and emotional failure. You can trust A.N.Wilson with facts which otherwise might fade into fiction. It is an adventure and a revelation.
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on 20 January 2014
This fictionalised account of Josiah Wedgwood and his family was so well done that I almost thought it was a biography. Having lived in the Potteries myself, I could relate to many of the places and events in the book. I thought it more or less accurate in the most of the time lines and the situations and relationships were believable. An excellent account of life in those exciting times of the early industrial and scientific revolution.
The only thing I didn't like were the italicised sections which told you about what had happened to the family members later in life. The book would have been better without them - I found that they distracted from the main storyline and dislocated me from that era into another. Why not another book to follow on the dynasty members? Just because you have done the research, does not mean that you have to put it in the book!
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on 13 November 2012
Set against the backdrop of the early years of industrialisation in the Potteries, this fascinating and very well-written novel about the Wedgewood and Darwin families explores many themes, historical, literary and scientific. This can be hard going for the reader at times, but the characters are realistically drawn, compelling and memorable, whether real or imagined, benevolent or evil. As is common in this type of wide-sweeping novel, the focus of the plot switches abruptly from one character to another and I know that some readers do find this an irritation. A.N. Wilson also frequently shifts the story back and forth in time, so that the reader can sometimes know what the future holds. The Potter's Hand is a densely-written novel, packed with information about many aspects of 18th century life. I was fascinated to learn about the growth of the Wedgewood fortunes, as well as about the Cherokee nation, the American war, slavery, ceramics, the status of women, the development of the canal system, opium addiction and much more. No complaints about the Kindle edition. A good long read, recommended.
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on 9 January 2014
Brilliant in parts.........unrealistically fanciful in others. Well researched and gives a good account of the political issues of the time, linking the great intellectuals of the Day.
I'm very glad to have read it and to know more about the connection between Wedgwood, Darwin, Boulton and writers of that remarkable time.
the FROG SERVICE in part survives............look at Google Images, it's astonishing.
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on 3 December 2013
Bit of a strange one - half biography, half novel - but for me it worked well. The section set in the America could be seen as an unnecessary diversion and a bit contrived, but I can live with that. I guess it ticked lots of boxes for me - born in the Potteries, fascinated by the building of the canals and by Catherine the Great, mesmerised by the Meissen collection in Dresden etc etc. And Wedgewood himself emerges as a complex and fascinating character. Anyway, I've recommended it to distant relatives in New Zealand who want to know about their roots.
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on 28 November 2012
I really enjoyed this novel that leaps through the life of Josiah Wedgewood and his extended family. The breadth of the scope may irritate the learned historian but I picked up the links to so many famous names and events with delight. Some of the character painting is superb - the lascivious Erasmus Darwin and the strong daughter of the mismatched Wedgewood parents through whose eyes many of the relationships unfold. The story of china clay and the American adventures are less convincing but enjoyable nevertheless - a bit reminiscent of Peter Carey's novel, 'Parrot and Olivier in America'.
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