On 11 May 1812, something unique in English history occurred: the prime minister was assassinated. He was Spencer Perceval, shot dead by John Bellingham, who was tried and hanged within a week of the murder. Even the most enthusiastic reader of political and social history probably knows little more about Perceval, and certainly even less about the lives of his many children.
Hugh Gault has had the excellent idea of relating the biographies of the Percevals as they spanned the 19th century. The result is a fascinating read: the sons and daughters of the dynasty were involved in every major career trajectory taken by aristocrats and upper-middle-class people throughout the years of the Victorian Empire. But the achievement of this book does not end there; this is a meticulously researched family history, with a wealth of tabular material to help the reader follow the many echelons of the family. At times Gault tends to supply so much contextual information that I found myself having a sense of being in a university seminar with a learned professor who is anxious to give me the minutiae of the social and political environment as the story progresses. Yet I began to welcome this, as the author explains hundreds of 19th-century institutions, debates and crises.
In some ways, the wife of the murdered prime minister steals the show. This is Jane Wilson, who married Perceval in August 1790. As Gault stresses, this was a marriage of love and affection: they wed as soon as she was able to do so without her father's consent. Perceval read law and soon found work, with his earnings increasing rapidly; then he rose in politics and matters looked very rosy for them as the family grew. Jane gave birth to their last child in 1807, and she would have only five more years with her husband after that. She married again, to a distinguished officer who had served in the war against Napoleon. As Lady Carr, Jane would have a long and busy life after being widowed a second time in 1821.
The adventures and enterprises of Spencer and Jane's children involve complex and tortuous journeys through the intellectual preoccupations of the Victorians, with Gault offering a lucid explanation of the Catholic Apostolic Church movement, for which one of the Percevals was a sanguine enthusiast. We also hear of several legal and political complications, plenty of philanthropy and eventually the sad tale of John Perceval. His life enlightens one of the most compelling narratives of the history of those years - a period of social reform and growing consciousness of the plight of those trapped by misery and failure in that relentlessly ambitious world.
John had been in a road accident with his mother, Jane, when very young; later, he had a short career in the Army, but his mental problems would see him spend time in two asylums. On recovering, he campaigned for the more humane and sensitive treatment of patients in the ghastly county asylums and workhouses. His story concludes Gault's substantial and impressive book, a work absolutely brimming with B-road journeys alongside the great highway that was Victorian progressive society; of all his narrative skills, the one I relished the most was his ability to elucidate the many quarrels, arguments and ideological confrontations in which those powerful people indulged.
This is a rare historical work, a family history with an enthralling theme: how a family without a father to guide them worked, loved, suffered and survived in a century of social revolution, empire-building and rapidly growing problems of poverty and deprivation.
Living History: A Family's 19th Century
By Hugh Gault. Gretton Books, 320pp, £14.99. ISBN 9780956204110. Published 8 June 2010