The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett by Richard Ingrams

The ancestor of all activists
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Cobbett's great achievement, as Ingrams observes, was to educate his class and "to identify more clearly than any other, and in phrases that were instantly memorable, their causes of complaint". Even today, the "savage indignation" that drives the best of his prose makes its cadences unforgettable, his Political Register having lost none of its rustic vigour. Here he is, as late as 1834, revelling in the destruction by fire of the Houses of Parliament, whose members had ruthlessly suppressed the interests of the populace: "It is a GREAT EVENT... It astounds, it sets thought to work in the minds of millions; it awakens recollections; it rouses to remarks; it elicits a communication of feelings; it makes the tongue the loud herald of the heart".

That intoxicating mix of anger and jubilation reveals his gift for plain-spoken eloquence, which articulated the thoughts and feelings of thousands of labouring folk. It also made him chief target for the corrupt and repressive Tory governments that ruled Britain from 1807 to 1827. Refusing to accept that their policies were responsible for the unrest that precipitated the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, they turned on him. Persecuted as an agitator, he emigrated twice, was found guilty of libel and served time in Newgate. The government's tactics were self-defeating, making him more popular with those who had no one else to speak on their behalf.

Ingrams is right to praise the independence of a man who, in the face of intimidation, denounced the royal jubilee of George III, attacked the clerics who tithed the poor, and foresaw the famine that would result from making potatoes the staple diet of those who lived off the land. His impeccable nose for self-importance, pomposity and snobbery makes him an excellent guide to the hirelings, time-servers and placemen with whom Cobbett clashed.

Lord Melbourne, for example, is "that most dangerous of statesmen, the literary man who has strayed into politics". Ingrams reminds us that he reacted to the farm-labourers' revolt of 1830 by transporting and executing more than 450 people. It is he, Ingrams says, "who has been held up as a charming and civilised minister" who coached Queen Victoria.

He is just as clear-sighted about Cobbett's egotism, lack of artistic imagination and susceptibility to mental illness. Very occasionally, he misses a trick. He does not say that when, as Poet Laureate, Robert Southey wrote to the Prime Minister, urging him to clamp down on radical journalists, he named Cobbett as chief culprit. It proves Cobbett was right to emigrate to America and exposes Southey's unpleasant sucking-up to those in power. Nor does he mention that Hazlitt began as a contributor to Cobbett's Political Register. That Cobbett perceived Hazlitt's talents so early shows not just that he was a shrewd editor, but that he was less isolated than he can appear.

Those are minor omissions. The only thing that might give readers pause is Ingrams's dry commentary, as when he describes the demise of Queen Caroline in 1821 as "one of those convenient deaths that so often come to the aid of the Royal Family". If you're like me, you'll find this sort of thing one of his book's pleasures. GK Chesterton remarked: "The man who does not find one of Cobbett's books amusing is doomed to find every book dull." The same applies to anyone who reads this entertaining biography.

Duncan Wu is professor of English at Oxford University