This is the sort of case where biography serves a really useful purpose. Richard Ingrams's new life of Cobbett is vivid and informative, and grounded in a good knowledge of his writings. It does not produce many hitherto unknown facts; the full-length biography by George Spater, published in two volumes , did the spadework well enough.
But Ingrams is a thoughtful guide to the character of the man; and although Cobbett's writings about everything including himself used a palette of black and white, his own psychology and political beliefs stand badly in need of nuanced interpretation. Cobbett was, as he never tired of reminding his readers, a "man of the people".
The son of a country tavern-keeper, he had little formal schooling and spent some of his childhood doing menial work in his father's fields. He made his own way in the world; while many of his publishing ventures did depend on loans and subsidies from well-wishers, he never accepted bribes, pensions or sinecures from the politicians in power.
Because of his attacks on corruption in high places, and his magnificently disrespectful style, he was dogged by the accusation of "Jacobinism" for much of his career. Yet, although he took up many radical causes including, in later years, universal male suffrage , he never really belonged to the rationalist, proto-socialist tradition. Deep in his nature was a streak of romantic conservatism: he had a nostalgic vision of how Britain should be - a place of old-fashioned charity and honour, of deep-rooted institutions and personal and public loyalties - and his radicalism was driven by his anger at how far the country had fallen from that ideal.
In fact, Cobbett's earliest journalism, written while he was living in Philadelphia in the s, fiercely attacked the American supporters of the French Revolution and defended the British constitution as a repository of wisdom and justice.
In later years, when he experienced how badly the powers of that constitution were exercised, and campaigned against the whole system of corruption what he called "the THING" , his opponents gleefully reprinted selected pages from his earlier works. Ingrams skilfully picks apart the charge of inconsistency on this issue.
There are other issues, however, on which the defence of Cobbett becomes a trickier business. One is the question of simple moral courage. On the two occasions when he fled to America, his justifications for cutting and running were good enough.
The second time, the government had just suspended Habeas Corpus: in principle no one was safe, least of all William Cobbett. But there are some other moments when he does not come well out of the story: giving evidence against someone who had written for his journal under a pseudonym, for example, or offering a last-minute retraction when he was about to be imprisoned for criminal libel. Ingrams actually pays more attention to both of these episodes than Spater did in his larger biography; but the defence of Cobbett given here may not convince every reader.
Perhaps the shrewdest judgment was the one given by Mary Russell Mitford, who knew Cobbett well: commenting on his fear of imprisonment, she wrote that: "He has courage but he has no fortitude. Published by Harpercollins Pub Ltd. About this Item: Harpercollins Pub Ltd. Sticker on cover. Ex-library, so some stamps and wear, but in good overall condition. Seller Inventory Z1-S Published by Harper Perennial, London, U. K K, Condition: As New. Published by Harper Perennial, London About this Item: Harper Perennial, London, Browning to pages. Condition: Used: Good.
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Nonetheless, he began criticising William Wilberforce for his endorsement of the Corn Laws, and for his personal wealth, his opposition to bull and bear-baiting , and particularly for his approval of "the fat and lazy and laughing and singing negroes". Average rating 3. Enlarge cover. The text block is untrimmed and the foredge is a little dusty as a result. Published July 3rd by Harper Perennial first published June 20th Seller Inventory FC
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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. Blake Morrison enjoys Richard Ingrams's The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett, a lifelong radical who might even have inspired a.
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