A remarkably perceptive and vivid life of William Cobbett, one of England's greatest radicals. The early years of the nineteenth century were ones of misery and oppression. The common people were thrown into conditions of extreme poverty by enclosures and the Agricultural Revolution, and the long Tory administration of Lord Liverpool saw its task as keeping law and order at all costs. The cause of reform was a dangerous one, as William Cobbett was to find. Cobbett is best known for his Rural Rides, that classic account of early-nineteenth century Britain which has never been out of print. But he was a much greater figure than that implies, being the foremost satirist and proponent of reform of the time. He had an invincible stomach for provoking the deceit and vanity of the supposedly good and great, and had an abiding hatred of the establishment, or 'The Thing', as he christened it. In the pages of his Political Register he lambasted corruption and excoriated hypocrisy, and walked forever in fear of prosecution for libel, for which he was sent to Newgate prison for two years, suffered bankruptcy and was forced to flee to America.
For all that the establishment loathed and feared him, the people loved him, and he was greeted by adoring crowds wherever he went. He was a hero of his time, and Richard Ingrams's admirable biography is both judicious, moving, sometimes funny and always utterly engaging.
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