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Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832 Hardcover – May 7, 2013

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Editorial Reviews


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.”

“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.”

About the Author

Antonia Fraser has written several historical biographies which have been international bestsellers, since Mary, Queen of Scots published in 1969. These include Marie Antoinette, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and Cromwell. Other historical works include The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, and Faith and Treason: the Gunpowder Plot. Antonia Fraser was president of English Pen, the world-wide writers’ organization for free speech, and is now a vice-president. She has received many prizes, including the Wolfson History Award, the Norton Medlicott Historical Association Medal, the Franco-British Literary Prize, and the St. Louis Literary Award. She was made a D.B.E (Dame) in 2011 for services to literature. She was married to the Nobel Laureate, Harold Pinter, who died in 2008.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs; 1 edition (May 7, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1610393317
  • ISBN-13: 978-1610393317
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #778,792 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By J. R. Trtek on November 17, 2013
Format: Hardcover
My opinion is certainly a minority one, but I must say that this book was a tough slog and by the end of the journey provided little in the way of true reward. It's not that it's poorly-written, because it's not. Any one paragraph or page is likely to be engaging and colorful in its way, but my view is strongly behind that of the reviewer of 11/12/13: Fraser fails to provide sufficient context and background. Individual personalities are sketched in loving and insightful detail, but the characters are not fully placed into their relation with one another or the social/political issues of the day. Moreover, the focus keeps changing from one to the next without much opportunity to step back and get a notion of the big picture. This is history made tedious and tiresome.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By DRF on October 12, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
It's well-written, easy to read and anything but dry. However, Fraser has a very narrow focus here--the Parliamentary battle for the Reform Bill. She offers no background to understand the context in which this became a crisis. There's no discussion of the economic or social situation in England at the time, nor is there much discussion of the political problems giving rise to the movement for reform. At her epilogue she talks about the subsequent careers of some of the major figures, but devotes no time to discussing the impact of the law on the composition of the voters or of the elected members of the House of Commons.

The passage of the Reform Bill involved the forced approval of the House of Lords (by having King William IV threaten to name a large number of additional peers in order to tilt the Lords in favor of the bill). I assume that this led to a permanent diminishment in influence of the Lords, but Fraser doesn't mention this.

This book works best for students of English history who are already familiar with this period but want to drill down in a blow-by-blow description of the political battle over the bill. That didn't really work for me. I have in a general sense been aware of this particular crisis point but knew next to nothing about it. I generally like my history reading to combine the political events with explanations of the social, cultural and economic causes and effects. That's not this book.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 18, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When you see the name Antonia Fraser on a book cover you know you will be reading solid history in impeccable and lively prose. Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832 is Fraser's latest gift to everyone who appreciates scholarship and good writing. (Fraser's mystery series featuring Jemima Shore is just as excellent, by the way!)

Perilous Question deals with the period from 1830 to 1832, when Britain was indeed on the brink. An antiquated governing system which allowed a small minority of men the right to vote and in which the allotment of Parliamentary seats had not been changed in centuries was becoming increasingly unworkable and intolerable in a fast changing country. The Industrial Revolution had created massive new cities like Birmingham and Manchester which went unrepresented in Parliament. These cities were filled with a growing middle class which demanded a voice in government. Unions and other organizations dedicated to political change were challenging the established order, while on the Continent the after effects of the French Revolution were still being felt. In July 1830 France overthrew the Bourbon King Charles X and replaced him with a more democratically minded King of the French. At about the same time in England King George IV died unlamented, leading to a General Election.

The Election's aftermath saw Lord Grey established as Prime Minister. Grey was an aristocrat himself, but he was a member of the Whig Party which had advocated electoral reform for decades. He appointed a Cabinet of reformers, both Whigs and Tories (many of whom were related to one another), and began the process of bringing a Reform Bill forward.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By John D. Mackintosh on January 21, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Although I well remember encountering the 1832 Reform Bill and its impact in my undergraduate British history course, this books brings it to life, both in the people involved and what was at stake. The author does an excellent job in conveying the sense of tension and the looming spectre of violent revolution that hung over these times. The most violent episode of the early 1830s, the three day Bristol riots, are brought to life and placed in context of their impact on politics. We witness the aging monarch William IV, recently ascended to the throne, as those hoping for reform turn to him for support against the Tory landed gentry unwilling to share power with the growing urban middle class. His popularity declines as he is increasingly seen as part of the problem. The Duke of Wellington, brilliant on the field of battle against Napoleon, showed his political adroitness by favoring Catholic emancipation during his time as Prime Minister in the late 1820s. Where broadening the electorate was concerned though, he is portrayed as terribly piggish and downright ridiculous with his predictions of national doom if outmoded and corrupt parliamentary representation is cleaned up. The most outstanding individual and man of the hour was Prime Minister Grey whose foresight in placing the national interest above that of his class serve as an excellent example for our own time that is plagued by self-serving politicians on both sides of the political spectrum.

This book is a must read for those who, like myself, may have tilted most of their reading in 19th century British history to the better known times and prime ministers of Queen Victoria whose reign began five years after the landmark 1832 Reform Bill.
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