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Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832 Hardcover – May 7, 2013
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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."
Engaging, elaborate and elegantly wrought.”
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.”
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 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.”
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 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.”
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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.
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. This book provides very good biographical insight into William IV, a monarch virtually neglected compared to Victoria. Also receiving in-depth exploration is Prime Minister Lord Grey, Robert Peel, Lord John Russell and we even briefly encounter the youthful Gladstone and Disraeli. Also worth mentioning are numerous excellent color reproductions of period portraits of William IV, Wellington, Peel, Grey, etc. It's unusual to find color plates in a book of this size and scope. Many highly amusing political cartoons of the era are also included with the these illustrations, grouped in the center of the book. It makes one wish someone would publish an extensive collection of such 19th century cartoons.
Perhaps the book's only failing is not placing the Reform Bill of 1832 in context with those that came along in 1867 and in the 1880s, and then into the 20th century, increasingly broadening the electorate. Such a brief summary would have fitted in nicely in the conclusions but that is a very small fault to find in an otherwise excellent work.
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. Grey had to contend not only with different factions in the House of Commons but also with a House of Lords many of whose members resisted the very idea of any change at all. Fortunately Grey had the new King on his side as well as a growing sense among the traditional ruling classes, both Whig and Tory, that change was inevitable and that it had much better come about through the legislative process than through violent rebellion. Eventually the Reform Bill was passed in 1832, setting Britain on the road to a more inclusive and democratic government system (though it would be nearly a century before all adults gained the right to vote.)
I thoroughly enjoyed Perilous Question. Fraser ably describes the tense situation in Britain in the early 1830s and the skilled maneuvering with which Lord Grey and his Cabinet managed the long drawn out process of getting the Reform Bill through both Houses of Parliament. I was especially interested in the role of the King and Queen. William IV is usually regarded as one of the more forgettable of British monarchs, but Fraser makes it clear that he was involved in the negotiations to get the Reform Bill passed, while Queen Adelaide, a German princess with bad memories of revolutions from her youth, was a strong supporter of the anti-Reform efforts. As an admirer of Amanda Foreman's biography "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire", I was interested to see that some of the same figures the Duchess dealt with, most notably Lord Grey himself, were still active in British politics some thirty years after her death. Throughout the book Fraser's ability to explain even the most arcane political maneuvers clearly and succinctly, as well as her eye for a telling and amusing anecdote, make the reading lively and entertaining.
Modern politics in the US and Britain often seem stultified and hopelessly deadlocked. It's encouraging to read this history of politicians who managed to get the right thing done in the end.
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