Into Apathy

Neil McKendrick

Among the modest consolations available to the unbeliever is the thought that one’s genes, at least, can outlive one, and that through them one can achieve a certain Lilliput immortality as they persist or recur in one’s children and one’s children’s children. Among the manifold pleasures of parenthood is that of observing this process made visible – watching for, and observing with delight, the features of those one loves emerging in a new generation of one’s family. The besotted grandparent staring into the mirror image of his own eyes, made miniature in those of his grandchild, glows with the warming thought that as long as they exist, and can recur, he will never be entirely dead. In family histories such simple pleasures can easily turn to self-congratulation – the kind, for instance, that led to the male Stracheys’ smug sense that ‘the Stracheys are most strongly the children of their fathers, not their mothers … it does not matter whom they marry, the type continues and has been much the same for three hundred years.’

The Wedgwood Circle might be expected to provide equal cause for genetic self-satisfaction on the Wedgwoods’ part. For the Wedgwood story is inevitably the story of the Darwin family, so often did they marry and intermarry, while, as one Darwin wistfully conceded, ‘You’ve none of you ever seen a Darwin who wasn’t mostly Wedgwood.’ Josiah Wedgwood’s chin may have gone underground, as it were, in the 19th century – hidden beneath those ubiquitous Victorian beards – but it has survived, as unmistakable as the Hapsburg jaw, to surface on many a 20th-century Wedgwood face.

Unfortunately, parents usually expect more from their offspring than mere physical resemblance. And when Josiah Wedgwood wrote to a friend congratulating him on his son’s achievements, saying how ‘highly pleasing it is to see so large a portion of the father’s taste and genius descending to the son’, he already suspected that it was not likely to be a pleasure he would be able to enjoy himself. Indeed, judged by the hopes and plans and expectations he had so long entertained on his sons’ behalf, he was doomed to bitter disappointment. In that sense, this history is a tale of failure – the failure of Josiah Wedgwood’s descendants.

This is all the more surprising since his descendants are usually presented as part of an unbroken success story, with the factory firm surviving as the incarnation of ‘the living tradition’: one of Britain’s few surviving successful family firms, whose names – Pilkington, Whitbread or Lloyds – reach back to the days of Britain’s supremacy in the world economy. More specifically, Wedgwood’s immediate descendants are customarily seen in terms of a continuing record of high individual success: Tom, the pioneer in the discovery of photography; John the founder of the Royal Horticultural Society; and Josiah II, the head of a great family firm secure in the knowledge of its acknowledged fame and industrial leadership. All of these claimed achievements have something of a hollow ring when examined more critically.

Collectively, too, the later Wedgwoods have been portrayed, along with the Darwins, as members of the ‘Intellectual Aristocracy’: one of those families who gained positions of great power and influence in English academic and literary life through persistent endogamy. Like other such families (the Trevelyans, the Macaulays, the Vaughans, the Stracheys, the Bells, the Woolfs, the Stephens, the Butlers, the Elliots, the Hodgkins et al.), the Wedgwoods and the Darwins are offered as prime historical evidence of the successful results of persistent selective in-breeding.

What is less often recorded – and almost never stressed – is the high failure rate. It is one of the merits of The Wedgwood Circle that so many of the minor characters are uncovered to put the major ones in a truer perspective. When one probes behind the leading figures one is forcibly reminded of what a rich array of mediocrity there is. Many of these minor characters are the plodders and eccentrics that all families almost inevitably accumulate, and one of the characteristic pleasures of family histories is the brief disturbing of their rightful obscurity. It is as if the inquisitive historian had lifted a quietly mouldering subsidiary branch of the family tree, so that we could watch the mindless scurrying and listless groping of so many deservedly forgotten individuals looking, like insects under a rarely-lifted log, all the more luminously strange for so rarely seeing the light of day.

In such little explored shadowy corners we find Sarah Wedgwood, the last surviving daughter of Josiah and Sally, living alone. Sarah was tall, thin, solemn and sad, but above all remarkably fastidious. She was so fastidious that she kept special pairs of gloves for particular tasks: a pair of black cotton gloves was designated for shaking hands with children; gloves of a lighter colour were kept for cleaner occupations such as reading books. She was equally fastidious about people and few met her exacting requirements. There is a certain appealing pathos in her unforgiving self-knowledge: ‘It is my misfortune,’ she said in a letter, ‘to be not an affectionate disposition ... there are very few persons in the world who are agreeable and charming enough to give me a lively pleasure, and I seem as if I could not feel affection enough to satisfy me without that.’

More conventionally eccentric was Sophy Wedgwood – an unmarried, ill-dressed recluse – who, when she did entertain, waited until everyone was seated at table, then cancelled the dinner and told the cook to serve only a single orange to each person – a diet which provoked even the vegetarian Wedgwoods. In her efforts to avoid waste she searched her own dustbins and salvaged what she could – even to the point of swallowing a whole bottle of unidentified pills rather than let them be thrown away unused. The pills delivered their own come-uppance by proving to be a powerful emetic.

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