Moulding a fine novel from the Wedgwood dynasty

My recent review of AN Wilson from the Irish Examiner:

The Potter’s Hand

AN Wilson

Atlantic; £14.99 

Review: Val Nolan 

Wedgwood. Today the name is inseparable from the finest pottery but, in the 1770s, with the frisson of revolution brewing on both sides of the Atlantic, Wedgwood was not yet a brand but a lineage of the genius variety, artisans with scientific minds whose ambitions intertwined with the birth of the modern world.

A generous, beautiful novel, AN Wilson’s richly imagined Wedgwood saga brings this family’s story to life once again. It is a version of history which benefits from sterling characterisation, notably that of the peg-legged patriarch Josiah. As a product of the Enlightenment, he is not simply “a distinguished ceramicist”, but also “a natural philosopher who has made many experiments in geology”.

Commissioned by Catherine the Great of Russia to create a thousand piece dinner and dessert service, Josiah enlists his nephew Tom Byerley — a struggling actor in New York — to procure a rare and exquisite clay from the Cherokee. Thus Wilson sets The Potter’s Hand along two interconnected narratives: Josiah the craftsman, at home with his introspective, often frustrated wife Sally and his curious daughter Sukey; Tom in the Colonies, the performer thrust into the spotlight of adventure where, among the massacres of American westward expansion, he falls in love with a Cherokee woman.

A biographer and historian as well as a novelist, Wilson’s sparse prose is a perfect match for this story of artistic triumphs and travails. Moreover, there is a personal aspect to this, Wilson’s first novel in five years. The author’s father was managing director of Wedgwood during its final glory days. Wilson’s journalism has often focused on the “things which made Britain great in the days of Brunel and Wedgwood: training the young; trade; and honest, hard work”, so it is difficult to ignore the subtext which emerges through the book, an implicit contrast between the scholarly, artistic ambitions of 18th century England and those of the present day.

Indeed, in one way or another, all the novel’s protagonists yearn for a society better than the present, one not just economically and politically self-sufficient, but also creatively and philosophically so. “From the loins of Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin” — the friend and doctor who sawed off his leg — “would spring a great intellectual dynasty” including not only Sukey’s son, the radical author of The Origin of the Species, but also pioneers in photography, music, literature, and art. Such familial dynamism is an aspect of an age long passed, but one tantalisingly evoked by Wilson’s wide-ranging, impeccably researched narrative.

A thoughtful undertaking with epic tendencies, The Potter’s Hand moulds the author’s characteristic concerns of problematic social progress and religious ambivalence into a masterpiece of historical fiction. Washington, Voltaire, Watt, Pitt the Younger, and problems of “cheap Irish labour” drift in and out of the story as they did Tom and Josiah’s lives, though never in a way which feels forced or arbitrary. For the characters, pottery is a dream. For Wilson it is lost ideal. For the reader it is a distinct pleasure.

  • This story originally published in the Irish Examiner, 22 September 2012, p.17.

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