Book Review: Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister
Posted on October 23rd, 2012
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is an odd book with entirely too much soul-gazing.
It’s a superficial and sensational history of a complicated event, and in order to provide the necessary background, there’s a lot of tension between the history and background (Orders in Council, slave trade, the politics that made Perceval PM) and conjecture and odd, sweeping statements.
The only British PM ever assassinated was poor Spencer Perceval, the family man, Evangelical-leaning Conservative stick-in-the-mud, on May 11, 1812. The assassin was John Bellingham, an accountant and would-be businessman with grievances against the government.
As a fiction editor, point of view errors drive me crazy. One place I never expect to see them is in a work of non-fiction. I don’t ever want to read that someone was a “typically stubborn, flinty-souled Yankee trader” because that’s a judgment, not an observation. (Also, that’s my New England heritage being tossed around like a pejorative.)
Another statement — “The conflict in John Bellingham’s nature between the beautiful and the sublime became extreme” — is not only ridiculous, it’s all invention. Who knows what Bellingham had in his nature? In a work of non-fiction, I don’t want to read conjecture. I want to read history. Facts. Sources.
There were sufficient minor errors, like describing the Prince Regent’s wife Caroline as an attractive woman (she wasn’t), or American settlers in 1812 as “moving onto the prairies” that I found myself doubting other recitations of facts.
The idea that Bellingham wasn’t a lone shooter is intriguing. If there’s any real evidence for it, I didn’t see it in this work. It could be that by the time I reached the end, I was doubting the veracity of everything I was reading (unless a direct quote).
The potential for a very interesting book was here — it would have required more research, better editing, and better weaving together of the facts, as well as toning down the grandiose value judgments.
I did learn some new things, and the notes were useful. So there’s that. I’d probably give this 2.5 stars, but am rounding up to 3.