The dame of British historical biography picks her way gingerly through the cluttered details of Parliamentary reform.
Biographer and novelist Fraser (Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter, 2011, etc.) has so thoroughly enmeshed herself in the machinations and personalities of the leaders surrounding the debate for the first great Reform Act of 1832 that she often neglects to see the forest for the trees. She does convey the sense of national urgency compelling leaders like the Whig Lord Grey to pursue the bill, which was a long-running attempt to reform Parliament by addressing the medieval, unequal distribution of seats, eliminating “rotten boroughs,” or defunct areas with decreased population, and expanding enfranchisement—at least somewhat. Fraser views England at a crucial “crossroads” during this period, beset by the convergence of historical forces that would play out in the heated two-year debate over the bill. The nation was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, creating newly populous towns like Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds and a prosperous new middle class. As the horrors of the French Revolution were receding from memory, another revolution in France carried off the latest Bourbon king, Charles X, and installed the populist Louis-Philippe, thus demonstrating yet again the power of the masses, delighting the Whigs while alarming the Tories. In England, the bloated, ailing George IV died in June 1830, ushering in his more people-friendly younger brother William IV. Moreover, the recently passed Act for Catholic Emancipation, which gave Catholics the right to vote in elections and stand for Parliament, had riven the Tory government. Consequently, reform was in the air, and the author masterfully evokes the arguments propounded over the several sessions of Parliament by the patricians of the day.
Fraser’s study of the “reasonable” confrontation between Commons, Lords and Crown is engaging, elaborate and elegantly wrought.