Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832

Overview

Few democratic institutions have been so rotten and corrupt as Britain's parliament in the early years of the nineteenth century. Its constituencies were largely medieval: there had been no adjustment to reflect the industrial revolution that had led to a boom in the cities of Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. Some constituencies barely existed in fact but still sent representatives to parliament. The most blatantly corrupt were perhaps Old Sarum, where two Members of Parliament (MPs) represented—quite ...

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Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832

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Overview

Few democratic institutions have been so rotten and corrupt as Britain's parliament in the early years of the nineteenth century. Its constituencies were largely medieval: there had been no adjustment to reflect the industrial revolution that had led to a boom in the cities of Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. Some constituencies barely existed in fact but still sent representatives to parliament. The most blatantly corrupt were perhaps Old Sarum, where two Members of Parliament (MPs) represented—quite literally—a lump of stone and a green field; Gatton, which was sold (several times over) for 180,000 pounds; and Dunwich, a shoreline community that had disappeared under the waves but somehow still retained its allocation of two MPs. The rottenness of the system might not have been an urgent matter but for the tide of popular revolutions that had swept France, Belgium and America. Suddenly, the mother of all democracies seemed on her death bed. Could she be saved? To make matters worse the country was bitterly divided—between and within its great political parties, the Tories and the Whigs. Charles Dickens and De Tocqueville were just two of the commentators who watched as Parliament, a dreadfully flawed and warped institution, attempted to reform itself. It all came to a head in 1832.

Internationally bestselling historian Antonia Fraser's new book brilliantly evokes one year of pre-Victorian political and social history that culminated in the passing of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, through the perspectives and experiences of a rich array of characters representing all sides of the struggle. The year was marked by violence—there were riots in Bristol, Manchester and Nottingham—and steeped in political tensions over the issues of Irish and "negro emancipation." From the Duke of Wellington's intractable declaration in November 1830 that "The beginning of reform is the beginning of revolution," to 7th June 1832, when William IV gave his extremely reluctant royal assent to the Bill, Antonia Fraser brings vividly to life the events that would forever change the way Britain was governed. Perilous Question is a story that will resonate with readers of the novels of Anthony Trollope and William Thackeray set in this period, and with anyone frustrated by—or aghast at—the gridlocked congresses and dysfunctional, fractious politics of our own day.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

The New Yorker
“Fraser writes energetically about the political wrangling, finding both humor and humanity in the struggle.”

Total Politics (UK)
"Perilous Question is a cracking good read and should be on every parliamentarian’s summer reading list."

Kirkus Reviews
“Engaging, elaborate and elegantly wrought.”

Evening Standard
“A spirited attempt to bring the controversy and passion of the era to a new audience. Her prose is charming and fluent. She shows she has lost none of the touch that brought her fame as a popular historian.”

Telegraph
“Antonia Fraser’s superb narrative of the passing of the Bill, which, as well as providing incisive pen portraits of all the major protagonists, is expressive and elegiac of an age when, despite everything, enlightened rationality informed political discourse… The 1820s and early 1830s have all too often been seen as a historical backwater between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the start of the Victorian era that began with the queen’s accession in 1837. With Fraser’s erudite and acute portrait of this age of reform, it won’t be thought so anymore.”

Shelf Awareness for Readers
“Political gerrymandering as historical thriller: Who would have guessed? In Perilous Question, Antonia Fraser makes precisely that leap--presenting the history behind Britain's Great Reform Act of 1832 in terms that are both historically thorough and deeply fascinating….With her usual perception and clarity, Fraser…draws life from a seemingly dry topic, turning political history into real story.”

The Spectator
“The final chapters of the book read like a thriller…The book should be required reading for today’s millionaire ministers who seem sadly lily-livered by contrast with Grey and his Whigs. This is history as it should be written: lively, witty and, above all, a cracking good read. I found it almost impossible to put down.”

The Express (UK)
"Do children at school still learn about the Great Reform Bill of 1832? …. What I don't recall from school is how thoroughly entertaining it was. What a slice of human drama, how tense, how crucial and how very nearly it could have foundered, thereby propelling our nation into riot and revolution. For that we need impeccable historian Antonia Fraser, who invests such humanity in her huge cast of characters.”

Library Journal
“In Fraser’s latest work on British history, she deviates from biography (Mary, Queen of ScotsThe Six Wives of Henry VIII) to tackle the “perilous question” of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, seeking to get at the personalities involved in this historical moment and the reactions of people at the time… Fraser moves the narrative along at a quick pace in order to give, as she says, “a flavour of the times”…The book is recommended for Fraser’s fans and for British history enthusiasts.”

The Wharf (UK)
“Antonia Fraser captures the febrile times with a kaleidoscope characters who leap off the page in their eminence, silliness and eloquence. This is a particular slice of history demanding a particular reader but it is edifying and breathless stuff and there are many lessons that our current ruling class could learn if they could tear themselves away from their expenses chits to make the effort.”

Camden Review (UK)
“Antonia Fraser’s immaculate and dramatic history of the 1832 Reform Act is so important and essential reading, a brilliant eye-opener and heart-stopper as she reveals the passions of the radicals at the crossroads of British history for whom the advance of democracy was the only sane way forward….All the awful pomposity is there to behold, all the chicanery, all the lust for power, money and love.”

Kirkus Reviews
The dame of British historical biography picks her way gingerly through the cluttered details of Parliamentary reform. Biographer and novelist Fraser (Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter, 2011, etc.) has so thoroughly enmeshed herself in the machinations and personalities of the leaders surrounding the debate for the first great Reform Act of 1832 that she often neglects to see the forest for the trees. She does convey the sense of national urgency compelling leaders like the Whig Lord Grey to pursue the bill, which was a long-running attempt to reform Parliament by addressing the medieval, unequal distribution of seats, eliminating "rotten boroughs," or defunct areas with decreased population, and expanding enfranchisement--at least somewhat. Fraser views England at a crucial "crossroads" during this period, beset by the convergence of historical forces that would play out in the heated two-year debate over the bill. The nation was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, creating newly populous towns like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds and a prosperous new middle class. As the horrors of the French Revolution were receding from memory, another revolution in France carried off the latest Bourbon king, Charles X, and installed the populist Louis-Philippe, thus demonstrating yet again the power of the masses, delighting the Whigs while alarming the Tories. In England, the bloated, ailing George IV died in June 1830, ushering in his more people-friendly younger brother William IV. Moreover, the recently passed Act for Catholic Emancipation, which gave Catholics the right to vote in elections and stand for Parliament, had riven the Tory government. Consequently, reform was in the air, and the author masterfully evokes the arguments propounded over the several sessions of Parliament by the patricians of the day. Fraser's study of the "reasonable" confrontation between Commons, Lords and Crown is engaging, elaborate and elegantly wrought.
Library Journal
In Fraser's latest work on British history, she deviates from biography (Mary, Queen of Scots; The Six Wives of Henry VIII) to tackle the "perilous question" of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, seeking to get at the personalities involved in this historical moment and the reactions of people at the time. A confluence of events, including the ascension of William IV to the throne in 1830, led to an environment ripe for a major change to the still-medieval system of government. Apportioning of parliamentary representation had not changed in hundreds of years, completely ignoring population growth and the Industrial Revolution, so that, for example, extinct villages had more members of Parliament than major cities. By focusing on the short period between 1830 and 1832, Fraser moves the narrative along at a quick pace in order to give, as she says, "a flavour of the times," reminding the reader that the people who lived through the period could not have known how it would all turn out. American readers unfamiliar with the major figures of the era may find this work hard to follow initially; the illustrations will help to ground them as to who was who, but a dramatis personae would have been helpful. VERDICT The subject will not necessarily draw readers in as much as a royal biography, but the book is recommended for Fraser's fans and for British history enthusiasts.—Megan H. Fraser, Univ. of California, Los Angeles, Libs.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781610393317
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 5/7/2013
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 644,882
  • Product dimensions: 6.66 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

Antonia Fraser is one of Britain's most beloved popular historians, and has written many acclaimed historical works which have been international bestsellers, including Marie Antoinette (Franco-British Literary Prize 2001), Mary Queen of Scots (James Tait Black Memorial Prize), Cromwell: Our Chief of Men, The Six Wives of Henry VIII and The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 (St. Louis Literary Award; CWA Non-Fiction Gold Dagger).

Antonia Fraser was made CBE in 1999, and awarded the Norton Medlicott Medal by the Historical Association in 2000. She was married to Harold Pinter who died on Christmas Eve 2008. Her father, Lord Longford, was a member of the House of Lords and her first husband a Conservative MP.

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