Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reform or Revolution in Britain? The Latest by Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser, biographer of Mary, Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette, Cromwell, and Charles II has written a history of the Parliamentary reform movement in 1832:

Antonia Fraser, international and bestselling historian, tackles the two-year revolution that totally changed Britain in her new book, The Perilous Question. Fraser brilliantly evokes the key period of pre-Victorian political and social history - the passing of the 1832 Great Reform Bill.

For our inconclusive times, there is an attractive resonance with 1832, with its 'rotten boroughs' of Old Sarum and the disappearing village of Dunwich, and its lines of great resistance to reform. This book is character-driven - on the one hand, the reforming heroes are the Whig aristocrats Lord Grey, Lord Althorp, Lord John Russell, Lord Brougham and the Irish orator Daniel O'Connell. They included members of the richest and most landed Cabinet in history, yet they were determined to bring liberty, which whittled away their own power, to the country. The all-too-conservative opposition comprised Lord Londonderry, the Duke of Wellington, the intransigent Duchess of Kent and the consort of the Tory King William IV, Queen Adelaide. Finally, there were 'revolutionaries' and reformers, like William Cobbett, the author of Rural Rides.

This is a book that features a most eventful year, much of it violent. Riots in Bristol, Manchester and Nottingham, and wider themes of Irish and 'negro emancipation' underscore the narrative. The time-span of the book is from Wellington's intractable declaration in November 1830 that 'The beginning of reform is the beginning of revolution', to 7th June 1832, the date of the extremely reluctant royal assent by William IV to the Great Reform Bill; under the double threat of the creation of 60 new peers in the House of Lords and the threat of revolution throughout the country. These events led to a complete change in the way Britain was governed, a two-year revolution that Antonia Fraser brings to vivid and dramatic life.

Because this great reform movement begins just a year after the passage of Catholic Emancipation in Parliament, I would be interested in exploring the connections between these reform movements. Some of the same characters are involved in these reforms--Daniel O'Connell, the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peel, etc--and these major steps in reform are related. Yet another book to consider on a reading list! Her main challenge, I am sure, is to make the achievement of relatively moderate advances in voting rights and  reapportioning parliamentary districts a compelling story without making the Tories seem horribly reactionary.

1 comment:

  1. Seem? They were. Remember, these were the people who had unleashed the yeomanry upon a peaceful crowd at Peterloo and who had taken willing part in all the crimes of the Congress of Vienna.