Did much of the excitement of writing The Potter’s Hand, your novel about Josiah Wedgwood, come from the way he harnessed the energy of a world undergoing dramatic political and technological change?
Depending on whether you’re Hegel or Tolstoy or Thomas Carlyle, the questions are: “Do human beings change history or is there an inevitable movement of history?”
I’ve never made up my mind. But Wedgwood is undoubtedly entwined in this extraordinary change that came upon Europe in the mid- to late 18th century. He, along with Matthew Boulton and James Watt, was part of a technological revolution.
The book also has cameo roles by everyone from Voltaire and Catherine the Great to Coleridge and George Stubbs.
In a sense, the portraits of Catherine the Great and Voltaire are caricatures. They’re walk-on parts.
In the case of Stubbs, I got really bound up. He was another person like Wedgwood who, in a sense, came from nowhere – his father was a shopkeeper in Liverpool – but he had this amazing genius and was always trying something new.
You show Wedgwood preparing a dinner service known as the “Frog Service” during the American Revolution. But he completed it a few years earlier, didn’t he?
The fact that Wedgwood thought globally was one of the most extraordinary things about this very provincial man. He never left England but was fascinated by the Americas. He was a naturally American person in that he believed that it didn’t matter where you came from.
He wanted this white clay and he discovered that the people who had the whitest clay were the Cherokee. So he bought it from them.
What he actually wanted it for was his jasperware. But I thought that if I put it together with the Frog Service, although it’s inaccurate, it gives you the sense of him straddling the world. On the one hand, he’s selling to the most powerful woman in eastern Europe; on the other, he’s getting raw materials from America.
Your father was a director of the Wedgwood pottery firm. Did it feel as if you were writing from the blood somehow?
It did come from a deep part of myself, no doubt about it. So in that sense, it was very easy to write. It also came from the strange things happening up in the Potteries.
The Potteries’ industry is in very grave crisis – if you go to Stoke-on-Trent, it is like walking through a bomb site. On every street, there used to be people who were good at painting cups or painting handles – there was a skill there that just got lost over two or three generations.
You’ve written more than 40 books. What’s the difference between getting to know a historical figure as a biographer and as a novelist?
Well, I never wanted to be a biographer. I wanted to be a novelist, really. I got very interested in historical fiction. Walter Scott was a really influential, world-changing writer. He had this way of putting characters in a situation where you can see society changing around them.
Rob Roy is the one where you see the commercial world confronting the aristocratic world. Old Mortality takes [up] the question of religious fanaticism, with which we’re still living to this hour. When I was doing this book, I hoped that it’s in that kind of tradition. That is, it’s not just a story.
What most surprised you in your research for this novel?
I was absolutely gripped by various books that have come out quite recently about the plight of black and Native American people during [the American Revolution]. It shows Wedgwood’s natural decency that he campaigned for the abolition of slavery.
The novel is preoccupied with the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the English countryside. Do we always have to balance progress with self-destruction?
I feel that very strongly. Wedgwood didn’t know it but he’d invented the first really big industrial space in Europe. The irony was that when he created the Frog Service, it showed a series of idylls. Beautiful trees, clean skies and people fishing in clear water. But, as you say, the Industrial Revolution was going to destroy all that.
A N Wilson’s “The Potter’s Hand” is published by Atlantic Books (£17.99).