Acclaimed popular historian and novelist Fraser (My History: A Memoir of Growing Up, 2015, etc.) rehearses the half-century of maneuvering that culminated in the 1829 liberation of English and Irish Catholics from crushing de jure discrimination.
In 18th-century England, Catholics were a thoroughly oppressed minority. Despite the easing of some restrictions in 1778, in the early 19th century, new members of Parliament were required to swear an anti-Catholic oath. How was the government persuaded to pass “An Act for the Relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects” (1829), which was, in the words of one Catholic cardinal, “to us what the egress from the catacombs was to the Christians”? Fraser’s cast of characters won’t surprise readers familiar with the outlines of the story: Her three stars are Irish Catholic activist Daniel O’Connell (who, despite insisting that “ours is a moral not a physical force,” likened himself to Simón Bolívar) and, in Downing Street, the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel, pragmatic politicians who served, respectively, as Prime Minister and Home Secretary. Both eventually championed Catholic Emancipation not out of a sudden love of Rome but because they feared that if they did not, “we must look to civil war in Ireland sooner or later” (as the Duke wrote to Peel in 1824). The supporting cast of anti-Catholic bigots included William Wordsworth, various Archbishops of Canterbury, and Mrs. Arbuthnot, a salon hostess who seems to have stepped out of a Trollope novel (it’s disappointing that Fraser didn’t make more use of Arbuthnot’s pungent two-volume diary). Though marred by the occasional cliché (“these were…fighting words”), Fraser’s account is salted with delicious details. For example, speaking in Parliament against emancipation, Attorney-General Charles Wetherell (who may have been drunk) gesticulated so aggressively that his suspenders broke and his pants started to fall down.
Not for readers seeking innovative analysis but a perfectly solid and sometimes-entertaining overview of the great men who brought about vital political change in Britain.