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China department

23 November 2012

But extending beyond it, Alexander Lucie-Smith, discovers

The Potter's Hand
A. N. Wilson
Atlantic Books £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20 (Use code CT517 )

THE new novel by A. N. Wilson - his first for five years - is about Josiah Wedgwood and his family circle. Because the master potter knew everyone worth knowing, and was a typical man of the Enlighten­ment, this means that a book about Wedgwood is about more than the man himself. It is, in the end, about human nature, the 18th century, and our own times, too.

The story starts with Wedgwood's undergoing some extreme 18th-century medicine - a leg ampu­tation. It ends on a similar note. Despite the canals and the crockery and the other advances, the En­lightenment lagged behind when it came to curing human pain. The narrative is haunted by opium and laudanum, and, in the closing chap­ters, we meet Coleridge, the world's most famous opium-user. He was patronised by the Wedg­woods, as were the artists Stubbs, and Joseph Wright, of Derby - all of whom make appearances. And so do George Washington, George III, the Prince of Wales, and many others. This is a vast panorama of a book.

The novel is episodic. Josiah sends his nephew, Tom Byerley, to buy clay from the Cherokee, which gets him mixed up in the Am­erican War of Independence. Byerley falls in love with a beautiful Cherokee potter, who later follows him to England, where she marries Josiah's childhood friend Caleb, and ends up working for the Wedgwood pottery.

Meanwhile, Stubbs and Wright paint the family, while Sukey, the daughter, is destined to be the mother of Charles Darwin. Then the Portland Vase arrives in Eng­land, and this is copied not by Wedgwood, but by the beautiful Cherokee.

The novel interweaves the real with the fictional, and, in the back­ground, we have the creeping realisation that the Enlightenment is not all that it claims to be. The American colonists are cruel and backward - at least regarding the Cherokee; the Empress of Russia, a recipient of a Wedgwood dinner service, is less than civilised in her private life; and the French embark on the Terror in the name of liberty. The whole is haunted by the pres­ence of slaves, treated abominably.

Wedgwood himself, Owd Wooden Leg as he is known, comes over as eccentric, but humane, with the famous words he puts into the mouth of a slave: "Am I not a man and a brother?" He seems to have no religious beliefs to speak of, but he does have a kind heart.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is the author of Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007).

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