TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 February 2017
This is a genial, fluent, engaging historical novel based on the life of the great Josiah Wedgewood, a household name in the ceramics business then, as now, about his family and associates. It takes in the politics of the time, slavery, the American Revolution and the early industrialisation of Britain. Wilson has written many books about the 19th century, but here he's seems just at home in the 18th, lightly working into his narrative many relevant historical touches that inform, adding persuasive colour without ever being intrusive. Although much of this novel follows historical fact, there are some invented characters, and the timing of some historical events have been altered for artistic purposes.
Josiah is a solid, eccentric, loveable, inspired, socially clumsy character. He provides the structure of the novel rather than its heart; it feels as if Wilson respects him but is not inspired imaginatively by him. But he's good at depicting Josiah's prickly marriage to Sally, their deep union which they find difficult to express in daily intimacy. He's a good father too, but makes the mistake of bringing his sons up to be gentlemen, inadvertently making them unfit to take up the business and work in the ceramics factory. His sharp, practical and spirited daughter Sukey, one of the main characters in the novel, might have been able to take up the reins but her gender prevents this. It appears that Sukey is destined to marry Josiah's nephew Tom, but there is no love between them, and she, at risk of being left on the shelf, settles for someone quite different, producing a son, the famous Charles Darwin (which nicely rounds off the book).... Tom, an actor, sows his wild oats in America, where he travels to buy kaolin from the Cherokee. There he falls in love with a fiercely independent young woman, Blue Squirrel, an invented character, who, later in the story, feeling mistakenly that he has betrayed her and her people in the American rebellion, sets out across the ocean to seek him out and exact revenge... A third strand in this interwoven story centres around Caleb, an upright, single, celibate man who has been secretly in love with Josiah's wife all his life; he transports Josiah's goods up and down the canals and lives with his promiscuous sister Heffie (she has an amusing fling with George Stubbs, the painter, who has been commissioned to paint the Wedgewood children), and he becomes fascinated by Blue Squirrel... These are the novel's main narrative strands and they are all handled with ease, humanity and humour. What Wilson is particularly good at is evoking the intimacy of love and marriage. A fine example of this can be found on pages 152-3, which beautifully describe Tom and Blue Squirrel's love-making. Here Wilson shows how to write a sex scene that captures its essence without intrusive sexual details, and that takes real skill, poetry and insight. There are several examples of this kind of intimacy in the novel.
The novel is bookended by two famous works of ceramic art. The thousand piece dinner service made for Catherine the Great, and the Portland Vase. The dinner service made Josiah's name and reputation; each plate, adorned with notable and exquisite hand-painted scenes, was a vision of Britain at its best, of estates and grand houses and rustic idylls, before the Industrial Revolution. The Portland Vase, which Josiah, towards the end of his industrious life struggled to make a dozen copies of, drew on classical themes and explored in its fine reliefs the ambiguous nature of love.
This is a good, old-fashioned, highly readable, long novel that draws deeply on 18th century history, mainly in England, but also in North America, that teams with interesting characters from the highest to the lowest, that is full of humanity, never sentimental, that's informative, and very English. It reminded me quite a lot of A S Byatt's novel 'The Children's Book', which is set later in history and concerns itself with art, which also has several interweaving narrative strands. Byatt's novel, however, is a deeper, more complex and richer novel and lights up for me, at least, the limitations of Wilson's art in this book - hence the four rather than five star rating.