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Beautifully written historic fiction about a remarkable man
on 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.