Publish and be damned

The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the fight for the free press

Ben Wilson <em>Faber & Fabe

At times of external threat - real or imaginary - governments of uncertain principle always find it necessary to introduce legislation that limits the freedom of the individual. Spies, saboteurs and arsonists inhabit every ministerial nightmare. In 1799, the fear that the Jacobins would export their revolution from France to England provoked (but did not justify) what Francis Place called Pitt's "Reign of Terror".

Habeas corpus was suspended, and parliament passed an "Act for the more effectual Suppression of Societies established for Seditious and Treasonable Purposes; and for better preventing Treasonable and Seditious Practices". It was an early example - recently replicated - of the belief that it is sometimes necessary to lock people up on account of what they might do as well as put them on trial for what they have done already.

The act was principally aimed at members of the London Corresponding Society, whose members included the publisher, bookseller, satirist and serial bankrupt William Hone. Perhaps because the list of late 18th-century radical journalists is so illustrious (contemporaries included Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt and, until he switched from revolution to reaction, Robert Southey), Hone has been largely forgotten. Ben Wilson's biography finally does justice to his character and achievements. The author is described on the dust jacket as a sometime research assistant to David Starkey. The Laughter of Triumph suggests that Wilson will soon acquire a serious reputation of his own.

The book is an adventure story. Hone's literary output was prodigious, but his activities as a publisher were equally heroic. In May 1817, he faced three separate indictments after publishing (in quick succession) three parodies that the establishment claimed were blasphemous. The trials were held on three successive days and Hone - defending himself despite claiming he was no orator - was acquitted on each of the charges.

Occasionally, Wilson exaggerates the hardships that Hone and his fellow journalists had to endure. He writes that Hone's experiences in 1817 "revealed the excessive punishments that were inflicted on journalists who were only accused of criminal libel". Leigh Hunt was actually imprisoned for "seditious libel" against the Prince Regent. It is worth remembering that Hone was freed des-pite attempts to nobble the jury; because of this, "another prosecution was inconceivable". The establishment reacted by employing satirists of its own - hardly an outrageous response.

Hone's satires made him famous. He was inspired to write one of his best known, The Queen's Matrimonial Ladder, after seeing an improving toy in a shop window. The toy had model steps pointing the way to the lofty heights of a happy and virtuous marriage. Hone adapted the idea, creating an imaginary ladder, the rungs on one side of which were labelled with the indignities that Queen Caroline had suffered at the hands of her husband, George IV - including "Accusation" and "Publication". The rungs on the other side recorded the king's fall from grace. The cover of Hone's pamphlet shows George flat on his back, the rung marked "Coronation" having broken under his weight. Queen Caroline sits at the top of the ladder in a pose that is clearly intended to represent Vindication: a happy state that she never achieved.

Hone idealised the queen, and exaggerated her rehabilitation, because he sentimentally regarded her as representing the victims of a cruel establishment. Wilson perhaps makes too little of the paradox of Hone's position: The Queen's Matrimonial Ladder is an attack on the monarch written by a monarchist. Yet the biography acknowledges that he "was no republican" and quotes an example of the way in which royalists explain away royal errors. In The Queen's Matrimonial Ladder, the allegorical public urges the king to "Spurn thy ministers - the traitors who counselled banishment" of the queen. The advisers always get the blame.

Wilson writes with an admirable balance and realism. After reporting that Francis Place credited the London Corresponding Society with "transforming working-class culture", he resists the temptation to congratulate Hone for contributing to that achievement and dismisses such a claim as obviously absurd. He then offers the essentially unheroic theory that it was the London Corresponding Society being driven underground that made Hone a serious social reformer. When his energy could not be employed satirising the rich and powerful, he invented a scheme for relieving poverty. He called it Tranquillity.

Like many committed social reformers and didactic writers, Hone was incap- able of managing his own affairs. In his time, he sold many books, but he never made a fortune, and his bookshops never prospered - although he did, for a while, become what we would now call a celebrity. His reward was the esteem of his peers. George Cruikshank visited Charles Dickens to tell him that he must attend Hone's funeral. Literary as well as radical London mourned his passing. Even the Times reported that he had "died from increasing infirmities occasioned not by years but by unremitting labour". And now he has the biography he deserves.

Roy Hattersley's most recent book is The Edwardians (Little, Brown)