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