The Potter’s Hand
In his capacious new novel, Wilson brings his combined skills as novelist and biographer to the life of the great potter, inventor and industrialist, Josiah Wedgwood. Taking acknowledged liberties with the historical record, he combines Wedgwood’s embarkation on the manufacture of the thousand piece Frog Service for Catherine the Great with his nephew Tom Byerley’s amorous and military adventures in the American War of Independence. The Frog Service opens the novel, the creation of the Portland Vase closes it and, through Byerley’s Cherokee mistress, Blue Squirrel, Wilson manufactures an ingenious link between these two Wedgwood landmarks.
The leisurely narrative embraces a huge cast of characters both real and imagined, from Voltaire flirting with the Empress to the lecherous, stammering Dr. Darwin (grandfather of Charles) putting his hands up the skirts of the Wedgwood women, from Bentley, Josiah’s shrewd business partner, to the young Sam Coleridge, drunk every night and composing a ‘foolish little poem about an old sailor’. These people, their thoughts and feelings, are astutely and sympathetically drawn by a writer as assured in his craft as ‘Mister Jos’ is at throwing a pot. Though the structure of the novel is loose, it is well paced and consistently fascinating.
My one criticism is that Wilson becomes hard to follow when he attempts a phonetic reproduction of the Potteries accent, but I will freely admit that phonetic speech is a personal bugbear of mine, and this may not distract other readers as much as it distracted me.
Easy flowing, informative, poignant and amusing, The Potter’s Hand is a fine evocation of the late 18th century, balanced precariously between reason and fanaticism, the wonders of pure science and the human cost of its application.