Antonia Fraser's "Perilous Question" is a dazzling re-creation of
the tempestuous two-year period in Britain's history leading up to
the passing of the Great Reform Bill in 1832, a narrative which at
times reads like a political thriller.
The era, beginning with the accession of William IV, is evoked in
the novels of Trollope and Thackeray, and described by the young
Charles Dickens as a cub reporter. It is lit with notable
characters. The reforming heroes are the Whig aristocrats led by
Lord Grey, members of the richest and most landed cabinet in
history yet determined to bring liberty, which would whittle away
their own power, to the country. The all-too-conservative
opposition was headed by the Duke of Wellington, supported by the
intransigent Queen Adelaide, with hereditary memories of the French
Revolution. Finally, there were revolutionaries, like William
Cobbett, the author of Rural Rides, the radical tailor Francis
Place, and Thomas Attwood of Birmingham, the charismatic orator.
The contest often grew violent. There were urban riots put down by
soldiers and agricultural riots led by the mythical Captain Swing.
The underlying grievance was the fate of the many disfranchised
people. They were ignored by a medieval system of electoral
representation that gave, for example, no votes to those who lived
in the new industrial cities of Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, and
Birmingham, while allocating two parliamentary representatives to a
village long since fallen into the sea and, most notoriously, Old
Sarum, a green mound in a field. Lord John Russell, a Whig
minister, said long afterwards that it was the only period when he
genuinely felt popular revolution threatened the country. The Duke
of Wellington declared intractably in November 1830 that "The
beginning of reform is the beginning of revolution." So it seemed
that disaster must fall on the British Parliament, or the monarchy,
The question was: Could a rotten system reform itself in time? On
June 7, 1832, the date of the extremely reluctant royal assent by
William IV to the Great Reform Bill, it did. These events led to a
total change in the way Britain was governed, and set the stage for
its growth as the world's most successful industrial power;
admired, among other things, for its traditions of good
governance--a two-year revolution that Antonia Fraser brings to
vivid dramatic life.
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