The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914. By Simon Heffer. Random House Books; 897 pages; £30.
IN the late Victorian and early Edwardian period of 1880-1914, at least (see article), Britain had a swagger in its step. You could see it in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee of 1897 and Edward VII’s coronation in 1902, or hear it in the music of Edward Elgar. You could detect it in the objects of everyday life: coins of gold and silver, books bound in leather embossed with gold, stamps doubling as works of art. The middle classes lived in solid contentment, with enough space to bring up a family and enough servants to lighten the domestic drudgery. No wonder the generation shattered by the first world war and buffeted by the Depression, then by the rise of communism and fascism, looked back on the Edwardian era as an enchanted long-ago, when civilised people were forever taking tea on the vicarage lawn.
And yet even these years hinted at Britain’s mortality as the world’s most powerful country. Those who only know Simon Heffer from his somewhat bilious writings in the Daily Mail might be tempted to ignore his book on this period. Resist the temptation. Mr Heffer combines a scholar’s command of the primary literature with a journalist’s eye for detail. He writes with admirable sensitivity about both music and literature: a better account of Elgar or Arnold Bennett would be hard to find. He does a brilliant job of exposing the rot beneath the glittering surface of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.
The ruling class became hoggishly self-indulgent: Mr Heffer lacerates Edward VII for his habit of sponging off his friends and debauching their wives. At the same time the intellectual elite—particularly the Bloomsbury set—took to ridiculing as prigs and bores the Victorian giants who had built up the economic and moral capital which they lived off.
Mr Heffer is himself a bit guilty of self-indulgence. He devotes too much space to subjects that catch his imagination, and says too little about an important part of Britain’s decadence: the way its obsession with the fripperies of aristocratic life diverted its attention from industry and commerce. He is silent about the United States despite the fact that these years saw America replacing Britain as the world’s biggest economy. There is surely no better illustration of Britain’s decadence than the entrepreneurial vigour of the likes of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.
Yet Mr Heffer’s faults are minor compared with his virtues: He writes with such exuberance—indeed with such Edwardian swagger—that he leaves the reader looking forward to his next volume, on the first world war and the breakdown of the liberal world order.