Book review: The Potter’s Hand by AN Wilson
AFTER five years away from fiction, which is a long time in the writing life of AN Wilson, the author is back with a magnificent saga of family life in the Enlightenment, centred around the Staffordshire potteries and the creative genius of Josiah Wedgwood, bluff, brilliant ceramist, inventor and entrepreneur.
The Potter’s Hand
Atlantic Books, £17.99
Grappling with the difficulties of producing a loss-making thousand-piece “Frog Service” for Catherine the Great, he kept his eye on the prize of mass appeal and managed to get his creamware on to almost every respectable table in England, commodifying gentility – and making an awful lot of money in the process.
Wilson does something rather brilliant with the life of this high achiever, viewing it mostly through the eyes of his generally self-preoccupied family and dependants. The great events of the time – the American war of independence, the French revolution, the abolition movement – are all woven into the fabric of his many characters’ lives as if they are occurring quite naturally.
Beneath the family and national history is a love story that is boldly concerned with sex and the sublime. Wedgwood’s handsome nephew Tom Byerley (made younger than in real life to fit the demands of this mostly invented strand of the novel) is an actor in New York when his uncle sends him on a buying trip into Cherokee territory to secure a supply of china clay, just as the colonists are going to war. Tom’s affair with an Indian called Blue Squirrel is not just another erotic interlude (of which there are plenty in this long, highly populated book) but a glimpse “into the life of things”, lyrically described. Ecstatic joy isn’t a theme many novelists attempt, and in a book with so many other things going on, Wilson was under no obligation to try.
In fact, he takes risks all over the place, most obviously in his decision not to fuss too much over anachronisms and a headlong dive into Staffordshire dialect. Someone does actually say they’ve just been “oop at works” and another exchange goes thus: “Thee hast sowp onta booble?” “Ah’m joos pootin the mooton patties inter ceek nie.” Coom agin?
Wilson is unapologetic, and it works. At one point he fast-forwards to 1805 and gives us a glimpse of Josiah Wedgwood’s daughter Sukey just before the birth of her son Charles Darwin and you feel this whole magnificent novel pivot towards the future. But the emotional heft of the book lies elsewhere: Wilson’s father was the last great managing director of Josiah Wedgwood & Sons. «
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