A Big British Moment

ryan_1-010914.jpg
Royal Academy of Arts, London
King William IV; portrait by Sir Martin Archer Shee, 1833

It is more than forty years since Antonia Fraser revealed a formidable talent for writing serious and well-researched books on history for a wide audience. Her Mary Queen of Scots, published in 1969, won the James Tait Black for biography; since then she has written prize-winning and best-selling accounts of a wide range of historical figures from Marie Antoinette to Oliver Cromwell, Charles II, and the six wives of Henry VIII. She has a particular gift for creating telling portraits of historical figures, often but not invariably aristocrats and royalty, embroiled in high politics with sometimes lethal consequences to themselves or others. She is an equally prolific and successful author of detective fiction. Her female sleuth, Jemima Shore, is a reporter with a knack for discovering political skullduggery in high places. Shore starred in a television series, but it was Fraser’s The Gunpowder Plot that won a Gold Dagger for detective nonfiction.

Perilous Question is a new departure only in the sense that Fraser has not tackled the politics of nineteenth-century Britain before. All her familiar virtues are on display, and if readers know the dénouement before they open the book—Britain did not experience a revolution in 1832—the story contains enough plot twists to satisfy the most avid mystery reader. The ruling class of the day managed to avert the revolution that many of them feared, with very little bloodshed and with few of the lasting hatreds that undermined French politics for nearly two centuries; but it was a close-run thing.1

The cast of characters is headed by the elderly King William IV, or “sailor Bill” to his loyal but skeptical subjects, and his much younger wife, Queen Adelaide, a minor German princess from Saxe-Meiningen, and an obstinate Tory in her allegiances. The liberal—strictly speaking Whig—hero is Earl Grey, known to posterity as “Grey of the Reform Bill.” The Duke of Wellington appears as quite other than a hero, obstinately resisting modest measures of reform, incapable of seeing that relatively minor changes in the archaic system of parliamentary representation were a defense against revolution, not the beginning of a process that would end with the violent destruction of monarchy and aristocracy alike. He was politically inept, unable to formulate a strategy or to marshal his troops behind such ideas as he had.

Perilous Question begins at three in the morning of June 26, 1830, with the death of King George IV and the accession of William IV, which at that time required a general election to provide the new king with a new House of Commons. Except for a short coda it ends on June 7, 1832, when William grudgingly signified the royal assent to the Great Reform Bill, which, among other things, swept away ancient abuses of parliamentary representation and substantially increased the size of the electorate. Fraser provides just enough background for the uninitiated to make sense …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

  1. 1

    “A damn close-run thing, Sir” is commonly ascribed to Wellington after Waterloo; he seems in fact to have said, “It has been a damn nice thing—the closest run thing you ever saw….”