Now that the TBR Triple Dog Dare has finished I am free to read anything I want. I have bought/borrowed a few books since the beginning of the year and I immediately turned to The Potter’s Hand by A N Wilson, a library book I borrowed in March and fortunately I’ve been able to renew it. I had actually read the first couple of chapters, because I just couldn’t stop myself once I’d glanced at the dramatic opening paragraph, which I wrote about in a Book Beginnings post in March, but I resisted reading any more until April!
The novel begins in 1768 and roughly follows the fortunes of the Wedgwood family until 1805, 10 years after the death of Josiah Wedgwood, an English potter and the founder of the Wedgwood company. I say roughly because the narrative moves back and forth in time and place. It is a most remarkable book, which kept me wanting to read it each time I had to stop reading – it’s a long book which took me several days to read.
As Wilson explains in an Afterword the broad outlines of the story and most of the details are true, but he has altered dates and rearranged historical events and nearly all the letters are invented. It is ‘meant to be read as fiction, even thought it is intended in part, as an act of homage to one of the great men of our history.’
For me it really did convey what it must have been like to live in that period – whilst the the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, were taking place. It was a time of great change (what time isn’t?) both social and political change as the industrial revolution got under way in England. It’s full of ideas about colonialism, the abolition of slavery, working conditions, and women’s rights. It brought about small changes as well as big ones – for example, before Josiah’s time many families ate off pewter plates or wooden platters, but with his production of creamware ‘there was hardly a respectable household in the kingdom which did not eat its dinner off well-glazed delicate plates.’
Wedgwood’s fame was international and resulted in an order to supply Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia with an enormous dinner service – the Frog Service, decorated with illustrations of grand houses, scenes of country estates, parks and gardens and numerous other British landscapes. And his great creation towards the end of his life was the Portland Vase, a copy of the original cameo glass Roman vase. But Wedgwood was not only a master craftsman, he was also involved with his friends – philosophers, scientist and inventors – in the development of the canals and roads improving transportation as his factory grew and prospered .
It’s big on character (lots of them), the main ones being Josiah Wedgwood himself, ‘Owd Wooden Leg‘, his daughter Sukey, his nephew Tom Byerley, his childhood friend Caleb Bowers and Blue Squirrel, an American Cherokee Tom fell in love with in America. But there are plenty more who come in and out of the narrative along the way, both fictional and historical, including Voltaire, George Stubbs (who painted the Wedgwood family portrait) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I was particularly interested in Dr Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, with his stammer and familiar way with his lady patients (if Wilson’s depiction is true to life) and his ideas on creation and evolution.
Overall it is the story of a remarkable family, their lives, loves, work, illnesses, depressions, addictions and deaths. I found it fascinating throughout, whether it was set in America during the fight for independence, or in England in Wedgwood’s factories, or his grand new house Etruria Hall, or travelling through England on the new canals.