Book Review: The Potter’s Hand

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istorical fiction
The Potter’s Hand
A. N. Wilson (Atlantic, £17.99, *£16.19)

Historian, biographer, commentator and novelist A. N. Wilson is full of variety. Having recently written about St Paul and Adolf Hitler, he turns his attention in this long and richly flavoured novel to Josiah Wedgwood, probably the most famous of all British ceramicists, at least until the 20th century. Wedg-wood excelled as craftsman, designer and businessman, building up the ceramics
industry in Staffordshire.

His wares were acquired in great numbers by George III and Queen Charlotte, and the royal couple make an entertaining appearance in this book. One of his most famous commissions was the Frog Service, with its views of famous sites in England, particularly great houses, which was created for Catherine the Great, and the commissioning and creation of this service is one of the principal themes of the novel. As we learn, Wedgwood was endlessly inventive and resourceful, not only in creating the designs that continue to delight us today, but in prospecting for new materials for his wares.

One of the several interlinked plots tells the story of his nephew, Tom Byerley, a handsome young actor in New York, who sets off to persuade the Cherokee to supply their white clay, of the highest quality, for Wedgwood’s works back home. His adventures in America and his violent involvement in the American War of Independence contrast with the depiction of the Wedgwood life in Staffordshire and London. Tom has an exciting and varied sex life, vividly evoked (with some startling animal imagery) in a book in which sexual activities play a considerable part.

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Mr Wilson is never daunted by the variety of subject matter and place. Wedgwood-determined, rough and ready, resourceful, puzzled by his wife’s coldness and sadness (entirely explicable as we learn from an account of their antics in bed, told from her point of view), insensitive but not unkind-acts as the main character. The Wedgwoods’ uncomfortable life in the pretentious new Etruria Hall in Barlaston, together with his business dealings, his domin-ance of his own works and his membership of the Lunar Society, are described in detail.

Mr Wilson also gives us New York and the Deep South; Voltaire dictating letters in his bedroom at Ferney; Catherine the Great consuming her guardsmen; George III making heavy royal jokes; a slave ship crossing the Atlantic and a brutal marriage between an army sergeant and a Cherokee; George Stubbs and his portraiture of the Wedgwoods.

Occasionally, the history lessons protrude into the narrative and the stage directions can be clumsy, but the author’s fine ear for language ensures that the period conversation is almost always convincing (although the low-life language does sometimes have a rather modern ring).

This boldly panoramic novel mixes history and invention, swooping from the narrator’s viewpoint to the personal feelings of the very large cast of characters. Highly experienced narrator that he is, Mr Wilson skilfully interweaves his various plots, yet keeps Wedgwood, his wife and his daughter Sukie at the centre of the book. This is the historical novel at its most ambitious.

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