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.

What's Inside

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Reader Reviews


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.”
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.”
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.”
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