Clive Aslet enjoys this study of the transformative years 1880–1914
History The Age of Decadence Simon Heffer (Random House, £30)
SImon heffer is wellknown to readers of certain newspapers as a trenchant polemicist. Less familiar, perhaps, is the extent of his erudition, manifest in a number of seriously weighty volumes—he is surely one of the few living englishmen actually to have read Carlyle, let alone write a biography of him.
This latest work, which runs to more than 800 pages, follows a study of the Victorian era, High Minds. This is scholarship of a high order: an impressive ability to synthesise wide-ranging sources and provide a cogent, readable narrative is spiced by the confident opinions, not to say barbs, of the newspaper columnist. This scourge of the errant mighty doesn’t let his pen rest simply because the subjects of his disapproval have been dead for 100 years. edward VII was ‘a capricious, selfish, hypocritical poltroon,’ although he is admitted to have matured, belatedly, in the 1890s. The politician and philanderer sir Charles Dilke, a member of the Marlborough house set, even after his public disgrace, is beyond redemption.
It’s easy to see the years 1880– 1914 in a haze of Downton-ish ease, elegance and solidity. Mr heffer opens with a chapter devoted to the concept of swagger, a term usually applied to portraits by sargent, but characteristic of the age as a whole. Domes, bombastic sculpture, some passages in elgar and most of Kipling expressed the self-confidence of the imperial near-zenith (the actual zenith, in terms of extent, came after the First World War).
as aristocratic influence declined, along with agriculture, and Britain became increasingly urban, a vein of nostalgia was opened by Thomas hardy, the arts-andCrafts Movement and, indeed, Country Life. This is contrasted with what, for many, were the realities of labour unrest, dire housing, drunkenness, brutality and prostitution.
one of Mr heffer’s heroes is W. T. stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who served a short prison sentence during a campaign against the sale of young girls as sex slaves. With a genius for self-publicity, stead would remind the world of his martyrdom by donning his prison uniform each year on the anniversary of his incarceration; he died clinging to one of the life rafts of the Titanic. his journalism exposed the loathsome underbelly of the world’s most powerful country. although empire was hugely popular in the music halls, Britain could make a hash of it. Mr heffer is good on Gen Charles Gordon’s unbalanced state of mind, which did not stop him being a popular hero whose death at Khartoum in 1885 caused consternation. That, however, was nothing compared to the ineptitude of the second Boer War: the war was won but the moral high ground was lost.
Just as we have Brexit, so the period in question had Irish home Rule, Votes for Women and the People’s Budget—a subject of endless debate and parliamentary manoeuvring. To steer the reader through this landscape, as well as (momentous at the time) the atheist MP Charles Bradlaugh’s refusal to take the oath of allegiance, is no easy matter, but the rough places are made smooth.
Mr heffer has a telling eye for detail—sidney Webb, with ‘his tiny tadpole body, unhealthy skin, lack of manner’ and ‘self-important egotism,’ was both ‘repulsive and ludicrous’: words written by Beatrix Potter, who later married him.
In another edition, the author might consider adding swimming to the numerous sports pursued in the edwardian age: edward VII presided over races at the Bath Club, whose pool occupied what had been the Marquess of abergavenny’s former drawing room in Dover street.
In one respect, this book has been poorly served by its publisher: there are too few illustrations, which is particularly sad when the design of stamps and coins is discussed with illuminating intensity.
Giovanni Boldini’s portrait of the journalist, author and playwright Lady Gertrude Elizabeth Campbell (1857–1911)