Joanna Trollope’s latest novel tells the story of a family run pottery. Joanna tells us how a trip to Emma Bridgewater’s Stoke factory helped her bring the idea to life.
I had two main ideas that I wanted to explore in Balancing Act. One was women as the family breadwinners (over 25% of women in the UK currently out earn the men they live with…) and the other was what it’s like running, and working in, a family business. And I wanted to choose a particular business that was quite muscular and manufacturing, with a proper product, but also one that would appeal to women.
Emma Bridgewater’s business, the revival of spongeware pottery, seemed like the perfect place. It is a hand made product involving some extremely robust processes; it is wonderfully decorative and evocative; it is made along traditional lines in a place where it has always been made, and it is English through and through.
So, through a mutual friend, I boldly asked Emma, and her husband, Matthew Rice, if I could go up to the pottery in Stoke-on-Trent (Hanley to be precise) and meet people in the factory, and see how they made what they make. Of course, they said. In fact, they said, we’ll help you, we’ll lay on various people you can talk to so that you can get a feel of what all the processes are, that go into making this delectable range of domestic pottery, from egg cups to four gallon pitchers.
They could not have been more helpful. Nor could the people in the factory, when I arrived. It was, for a complete novice, a complete eye opener and absolutely fascinating. I went back several times, filling my research notebooks with facts and photographs and comments and observations, never mind some happy shopping in the factory seconds shop. I wanted to get the background to the book – the life in the factory – as accurate as I possibly could, so that the story of the family of women who run my imaginary factory in Balancing Act has as authentic an atmosphere as possible.
I actually fell rather in love with Stoke, and pottery, and certainly with all the people I met. And the research for this book made me acutely aware of the satisfaction there is in making something, especially a good looking, useful object that will grace daily life, giving pleasure all the while that it serves a practical purpose. And every morning, when I make tea in the mug the factory gave me, which says “Joanna’s Mug” in a scattering of hearts, I think with real appreciation of how many processes it took to make that mug, and even more, of all the pairs of skilled hands that touched it. 25 for a single mug, I think…..