Where did our free press come from? The Laughter of Triumph traces its origins to the Regency period, focusing on the life and work of the publisher and writer, William Hone (1780-1842). As Ben Wilson argues, Hone deserves wider recognition for having helped create a climate in which it was impossible for politicians to silence the vox populi.
To understand how bad things were in his day, you must imagine a world in which the monarch could make laws, raise taxes, declare wars and hire and fire ministers. No MP could claim to represent all of his constituents, for the simple reason that most didn't have the vote. And when the government chose to fight other countries (as it did France for over two decades), the poorest paid the bill.
Realising the depth of its unpopularity, not to mention susceptibility to criticism, the government decided in 1817 to suspend habeas corpus and jail anyone it thought threatening (sound familiar?), usually for what we would regard as no more than fair comment. It prosecuted them either for libel - which under Regency law could mean telling the truth - or blasphemy. Moreover, it rigged the legal system to ensure that only its placemen were summoned for jury service, encouraging such judges as Lord Ellenborough to bully a "guilty" verdict.
Not surprisingly, these tactics drew the fire of numerous writers, imprisoned merely for laughing at them. Of these, Hone was one of the bravest: a man tried three times, who on each occasion managed by plain-spoken eloquence to expose the prosecution case as a politically-motivated sham. He became a popular hero, and in collaboration with the illustrator George Cruikshank published such satires as The Political House that Jack Built, which went through 51 editions in three years.
Though he never promoted revolution, Hone contributed to a growing distrust of the government, which in turn led working people to protest. As paranoid as America during the McCarthy era, Lord Liverpool's administration put down rebellion using either agents provocateurs to execute ringleaders, or brute force, as with the Peterloo Massacre. But the popular will would not be silenced. Hone helped initiate a fight for democratic liberties that continued into the next century.
Wilson begins by deploring the lack of "a major non-academic biography" of Hone, one his book repairs admirably. He achieves the difficult task of narrating two stories at once (of Hone and his turbulent world), negotiating complex issues with clarity and aplomb. My principal reservation is with his bashfulness in assessing Southey and Coleridge, who in 1817 wrote to Lord Liverpool urging him to take a harder line with radical journalists. This was sickening hypocrisy. Once radicals, the poets had in the 1790s protested vehemently against Pitt's repressive wartime measures, but in complacent middle age rushed to be the hirelings of a far worse regime. When we are told that Coleridge "put aside his political prejudices" to commend Hone's victory, he deserves to be denounced, not patted on the head.
Wilson's prose is a tad uneven: there are vague references to The Examiner's "circle" and "set" (who exactly?), while the coupling of name and day-job ("Cambridge mathematician William Frend") is irritating. Nor is Wilson immune from error: the Morning Chronicle was a Whig, not Tory, paper; Henry Leigh Hunt rather than John Hunt (his father) was Cowden Clarke's business partner.
But for the most part, Wilson deals so engagingly with such an involved narrative that one should just be grateful that a major publisher has seen fit to publish this tribute to a neglected champion of a free press.
Duncan Wu is professor of English at Oxford University
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