AN Wilson's first novel for five years is a major event

AN Wilson, an author for whom I have the deepest admiration, has written a new novel. This is something of an event, as he has not written one for five long years. Recently, he has been producing books on history and theology. I first discovered his novels when I was an undergraduate, so I associate his early novels with a happy period of my life. His early works are richly comic, very much in the strain of Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse, so I do recommend them to all who need their spirits lifting.

Of late his fiction has grown more serious, as is usually the case with authors as they get older. He has now produced a book called The Potter’s Hand, which is about Josiah Wedgwood. In style the novel rather recalls the approach of Hilary Mantel, but whereas we all know all there is to know about the Tudors in general and Henry VIII in particular, Wedgwood, though literally a household name, is probably not as well known as he ought to be. He is, in fact, one of the seminal figures of the English Enlightenment – a practical man, who not only produced ceramics that were the rivals of Meissen and Sevres, but also built canals, was part of something called the Lunar Society, a group of thinkers who met once a month, and also campaigned against slavery. He was, like so many of the great figures of the Industrial Revolution, a Unitarian (or so the book suggests).

There are two things that seem to distinguish the Enlightenment in England. The first is rationality, and the second is universalism. Things will progress, if we take a rational approach; and we can get by without divine help.

Reading the novel, I realise that I do not subscribe to this sensible vision one little bit.

First of all, there are many forms of rationality. Which are we to follow? Secondly, there is something called sin. How are we to overcome it, without the grace of God?

Wedgwood invented the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?” The question of slavery, which he did not live to see abolished, illustrates my point. There are many rational arguments against slavery, but the “Am I not a man and a brother?” argument seems to me to be a religious argument, rather than a purely rational one. It is an appeal to universal brotherhood (a Christian idea), against the very strong economic argument for the necessity of forced labour. And let us remember that it was the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome who were quite untroubled by slavery (yes, indeed, I know, as was St Paul!) whereas it was the evangelicals of the Clapham Sect who spearheaded the campaign for its abolition in the British Empire.

I do not doubt that Wedgwood was a great and good man, but to my mind this fictional treatment of his life shows up the limits of the Enlightenment as much as its strengths.