This is my review of Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 by Lady Antonia Fraser.
Bubbling over with knowledge of the period, Antonia Fraser kindles our interest in what may seem a dry old piece of legislation by relating it to the events and personalities of the day. In a Parliament dominated by aristocrats, even the Whigs' desire to give some political representation to rapidly growing industrial cities like Birmingham was based on a pragmatic aim to avoid public revolt, after the grim precedent within living memory of the excesses of the French Revolution. Any thoughts of universal suffrage or a secret ballot were still the dangerous ideas of the "Radicals". It is startling to discover that the Reform Act only extended the franchise from 3.2% to 4.7% of the population!
Although other reviewers have praised the "novel-like" style of the book, I found the continual digressions into the family connections, appearances and verbatim comments of the main – and some minor – characters quite hard to digest. A glossary would have been really useful. More seriously, these often rambling discursions tended to get in the way of a proper understanding of the three Reform Bills which led to the 1832 Act itself. At no point does the book clearly explain exactly what was in each Bill and why. Neither is there a full explanation of the conditions which made the Reform Act necessary, with an indication of earlier efforts to improve the electoral system. Antonia Fraser's celebrity raises one's expectations, so that it is disappointing that this may also elevate her above being asked to submit her work to a thorough edit.
The book improved for me from Chapter 9, the point where England explodes into widespread riots after the Lords' first rejection of the Bill, largely because of opposition from the Bishops. To think how much ordinary people cared about it, when our latest widespread riots were largely about looting chain stores! Chapter 10 is particularly gripping with accounts of anarchy in Bristol, where soldiers held back out of sympathy for the mob. The official death toll was twelve, "but the number of rioters who died was probably more like 400". In view of some recent media scandals, I was struck by the scurrilous press attacks on the German Queen Adelaide who was thought to have influenced King William IV against reform. The extent of his power is intriguing – he could refuse to create the extra peers necessary to get the Bill passed. Yet, 180 years on, some continue to argue for the maintenance of unelected peers, and appointed lords still occupy key posts in our Government…..