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Democracy in Britain

by Kelly Jane Torrance

Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832, by Antonia Fraser (PublicAffairs, 352 pp., $29.99)

This lively book by Lady Antonia Fraser more than delivers on the promise of its dramatic title. It was the maneuvering of the early 1830s that began to make the Britain we know today — and prevented the emergence of a more disturbingly defiant one that we happily don’t.

The very modern Lady Antonia — her last book was a memoir of her sometimes scandalous life with her late second husband, the playwright Harold Pinter — offers a Whiggish history of this period of Whig rule, focusing as she does on a conflict that ended in a glorious reform, rather than a revolution, owing to the monumental efforts of a handful of great men. For her, the political is very much the personal: Letters, recollections, and biographies make up much of her source material. Some of the details she recounts, such as the death of the 13-year-old grandson of the prime minister, are given rather too much importance in the story of the passage of the bill that would come to be called the Great Reform Act. Fraser also spends too much time examining the scant evidence regarding the influence of King William IV’s much younger German wife, Queen Adelaide, on the politics of her adopted country. But Fraser’s personality-centered approach makes for more engrossing reading than one would expect of a volume centered on the vagaries of the British Parliament in the 1830s.

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