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Clive Aslet en­joys this study of the trans­for­ma­tive years 1880–1914

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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)

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