“The Age of Decadence” is a successor volume to the same author’s well-regarded “High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain” (2013), which charted Britain’s rise to “greatness” in the earlier part of the 19th century. Heffer picks up here with Gladstone taking over the premiership from his great rival, Disraeli, in 1880, then guides us through the high-Victorian era into the 20th century with the accession of King Edward VII in 1901. He ends in 1914 with Britain facing an unhappy choice between a European war with Germany and a civil war in Ireland. He wisely does not include the origins of the world war substantively in this volume (his book on this topic has just been published in Britain). In such a way he avoids the teleological danger of making everything in Britain about the war as the country hurtles toward some kind of inevitable abyss. In fact, until the last moment, even after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Ireland seemed the more important priority for Britain.
There are many pleasures to be had in this fine book, not the least of which is the vivacity of Heffer’s prose. A columnist for The Sunday Telegraph as well as a historian, he writes elegantly but punchily, combining seriousness with welcome flashes of waspishness that stop things from getting stuffy. Pointing, for example, to the socially entitled Virginia Woolf’s sneering at a fellow novelist, the shopkeeper’s son Arnold Bennett, Heffer notes that her put-downs “had him written off for much of the 20th century by generations of university lecturers and critics, who confused snobbery with literary criticism.” That, as they say, is a twofer.
Heffer has little interest in debates among historians on the period, but unlike many general surveys of this kind, he does not rely just on secondary literature and makes excellent use of wide-ranging archival research. That approach gives the book a fresh perspective, although not necessarily a new one. What is striking about “The Age of Decadence” is that it brings us full circle to the view the late Victorians and Edwardians so often had of themselves and it echoes George Dangerfield’s seminal 1935 book “The Strange Death of Liberal England,” which evocatively depicted how “by the end of 1913 Liberal England was reduced to ashes.” In Heffer’s telling it is perhaps less ashes to ashes than an overripe piece of fruit rotting and putrefying in front of our eyes.
”The Age of Decadence” is a masterpiece of pacing. After an amiable perambulation with the last of the Victorians, we build to a frantic cliff-top scramble as the Edwardians lose their grip on events and themselves. The book culminates in three powerful chapters on the suffragists, industrial unrest and the threat of civil war in Ireland. By the final pages, Heffer has skillfully conjured a country in chaos and heading over the edge. The prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, had “rarely felt more hopeless” and by July 1914 believed the United Kingdom had reached “an impasse, with unspeakable consequences.” The Lord Mayor of Liverpool told the Earl of Derby he feared “a revolution is in progress.” In the circumstances, a war with Germany looked to many like the easy option.
Heffer has no hesitation in pointing the finger of blame at the complacent, “swaggering” late-Victorian and Edwardian elites who ran the show in these four decades. From 1880 “until the apocalypse came in 1914,” he writes reprovingly, “there was among the upper and upper-middle classes a resting on laurels; a decision, literal and metaphorical, to live off dividends rather than work that little bit harder and improve more.” The end result: “Britain was diminished” and “British power was in decline.”