Perilous Question by Antonia Fraser
Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832

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Fraser’s study of the “reasonable” confrontation between Commons, Lords and Crown is engaging, elaborate and elegantly wrought.
-Kirkus

Synopsis

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, or both.

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.
 

About Antonia Fraser

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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.
 
Published May 7, 2013 by PublicAffairs. 354 pages
Genres: History, Political & Social Sciences, Travel. Non-fiction
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Critic reviews for Perilous Question
All: 4 | Positive: 3 | Negative: 1

Guardian

Above average
Reviewed by John Barrell on May 03 2013

...Fraser's understanding of the events of 1830-32 in the light of the earlier campaigns for reform is slight, and this gives her account of the bill's passage a thin, one-dimensional feel.

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WSJ online

Good
Reviewed by William Anthony Hay on May 10 2013

She is to be commended for focusing her impressive talents on a hinge moment in history, when balancing change with continuity kept revolution at bay.

Read Full Review of Perilous Question: Reform or ... | See more reviews from WSJ online

Kirkus

Good
on Mar 12 2013

Fraser’s study of the “reasonable” confrontation between Commons, Lords and Crown is engaging, elaborate and elegantly wrought.

Read Full Review of Perilous Question: Reform or ... | See more reviews from Kirkus

Financial Times

Good
Reviewed by Sue Gaisford on May 17 2013

She is a knowledgeable guide, spicing her narrative with vivid sketches of the anxieties of individuals involved, from the king’s dismay at the indiscretions of Queen Adelaide to Lord Grey’s grief at the death of his little grandson...

Read Full Review of Perilous Question: Reform or ... | See more reviews from Financial Times

Reader Rating for Perilous Question
85%

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