Muck Cart or Wedding? ‘The Potter’s Hand’ by A N Wilson

The-Potters-Hand-195x300I must confess that when Alison at Atlantic books contacted me about reviewing The Potter’s Hand I wasn’t the excited at the prospect. A family saga about a Victorian industrialist is hardly my typical reading material. Yet there is something compelling about the name of Wedgewood, a powerhouse of his time and still a household name today.

My wife is a voracious, hard to please reader, so I figured that if she liked the book, it would be a worthwhile read. She’s from the Potteries, from a family that has lived there for several generations, so I thought the book would interest her. Alison was kind enough to send me the book, even though all I could promise is that my wife would at least start it.

Mrs Brooks’s verdict was that it was worth a read.  Still unconvinced it would ever reach the top of my reading pile without further incentive, I persuaded my Book Group to read it too.

Whilst the journey wasn’t entirely plain sailing I am very glad I made the effort, and dragged others along with me. The book was an unalloyed success at book group, receiving the approval of every member. A rare event. As I expected I had the least favourable view, but I must concede that overall The Potter’s Hand is an impressive and immersive piece of fiction.

Ostensibly it follows Josiah Wedgewood from his formative years right up to his death, but it’s main focus are the years after his marriage to Sally. The other principle characters are their daughter Sukey, nephew Tom Bryerly, a Cherokee Indian (A woman Tom met whilst on a mission to procure white clay for his uncle) and Caleb Bowers, a childhood friend of Josiah’s.

The plot of the novel is short but exceptionally broad, taking in many of the important players of the Industrial Revolution. The tumultuous history of the time dovetails seamlessly with the novel. The American War of Independence, abolition of slavery, even the French Revolution butt up against The Potter’s Hand, which sits in the middle, offering a lens on them all. At the centre of the novel is Josiah Wedgewood, lynchpin of so many deeds and events.

As I’ve grown longer in the tooth, I’ve noticed how little context the things I learned in school (and even university) were given. Each topic was studied in isolation, with little time or consideration as to how one might have impacted the other. For example, during my degree important scientists were mentioned in reference to their discoveries but it was never mentioned that they all hung out together. It probably wasn’t important to what I was learning at the time, but through subsequent wider reading of books like The Potter’s Hand it is possible to see and understand the evolution of modern science and technology. I think it unifies understanding of the subject.

There were times when the sheer volume of characters and the depth of detail threatened to overwhelm me. Where was the story? The book felt not so much a novel but a fictionalised biography of Josiah Wedgewood. Snapshots placed in chronological order. Immensely detailed snapshots, but ultimately just pictures without an overriding story arc. If it hadn’t been for the extra interest generated by my knowledge and relation by marriage to the area, I may have given up.

Had I done so I would have missed out. Because yes, on the surface this a novel about events and famous historical characters. It’s detail heavy; names, places and processes. It’s interesting, sometimes but riveting? Rarely. And then I came across a passage of such elegant beauty it stopped me in my tracks. It was though a veil and had been lifted and suddenly I could see with the utmost clarity. The real story here goes on between the details. It’s about the relationship between love, work and art. It’s only as we reach the end of the novel we see A N Wilson’s full picture, and it’s quite something to behold.

Characterisation is mostly strong. Josiah is wonderfully rendered as is his wife and daughter. There is a dichotomy between Wedgewood’s progressive republicanism and abolitionist stance, and his blinkered view towards emancipation and women’s rights. Even the world-wise and enlightened Sukey is shackled by the attitudes of the time.

The main players are supported by varied and colourful secondary characters, including the less sympathetically drawn Darwins. Such is the hatchet job done on the Father of Evolution’s forbears, it’s hard not to wonder if Wilson is a closet Intelligent Design adherent! I have no idea how much basis in fact there is for portraying Erasmus Darwin as a lecherous molester, but it certainly adds a piquancy to the story.

Overall, I am very glad I decided to give The Potter’s Hand a go. It is a vivid portrayal of the industrial revolution, with a nugget of gold at its heart. Of the 7 people I know who have read the book, all thought it was something special. 7 opinions for the price of one. Recommendation indeed!

Many Thanks to Alison at Atlantic for sending me a copy of this book with only the flimsiest promise to read it! 

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