The late Victorians inhabited a social structure that many at the time considered to be ripe past rottenness and ready to drop. Simon Heffer has set himself the task of chronicling this decadent period of Britain when the wealth built up by previous stoical generations was squandered by the ruling class in rich living. He starts with William Gladstone’s second administration in April 1880 and ends in July 1914 with Ireland on the brink of war over Home Rule, taking in widespread industrial unrest and the militancy of the suffragettes.
At the beginning of his story are the landed interests, 10 per cent of the population that owned 92 per cent of the nation’s wealth. Their citadel was breached by the introduction of death duties by a Liberal administration in 1894, which Heffer says “derailed a class that had for centuries regarded wealth and privilege as its right”.
The ruling class had always behaved badly: the difference in the 1890s was the end of the assumption that they had the right to rule; and the amount of wealth now available for ostentation at this high point of empire and industrialisation. Suspicion of the aristocracy was accelerated in the 1890s by a combination of the new popular press, mass literacy, and a middle class that (perhaps rather comically) actually believed in “Victorian morality” and delighted in persecuting those who deviated from it.
Heffer has particular ire for members of the ruling class who let the side down, describing the Prince of Wales as “the personification of the manners and morals that caused the age in which he prevailed and later reigned to be regarded as one of decadence”. Heffer is so preoccupied with old Tum-Tum’s “setting an atrocious example” that he misses the contention that Queen Victoria’s pro-German sentiments damaged Britain’s interests at a time when Germany was in the ascendant. By contrast, as King, Edward VII’s association with France, and his command of the language and manners of that country, led to a smooth ride for the Entente Cordiale with the French in 1904.
Down the scale, there was so little security of employment that people who had managed to climb the ladder lived in fear of falling back down it, so they served their interests by aping what they considered to be the virtues of their social superiors. It is this grasping after an ephemeral “respectability” that enriches the novels of HG Wells and Arnold Bennett in describing the determination of the lower-middle class to become the middle-middle class.
Heffer calls this the “most socially divisive and disruptive period since the rise of Chartism in the late 1830s” with labour unrest, Irish nationalists, Ulster unionists and suffragettes. In chronicling it, he is somewhat limited by his lack of natural sympathy for the masses in revolt as he leaves what the talent-show judges would call his “comfort zone”.
Heffer, a Daily Telegraph columnist as well as a New Statesman contributor, shows a love for the landed gentry, an affectionate joshing of the middle class – keep at it, you’ll get there, chaps – but a caution bordering on bewilderment for the working class. He sees unrest not as a positive working out of aspirations, but as the failing of “a ruling class whose decadence had provoked the often successful challenges of the Labour movement”.
He recognises that both Liberalism and Conservatism had failed the state, but views the evidence of this failure with incomprehension. He writes:
One of the paradoxes about the birth of socialism as a doctrine in Britain is that few of its early apostles were working class and many working men were happy with what the Liberal party (or even, in some cases, the Tories) offered them, until enlightened by their betters.
The idea that workers were misled into socialism by middle class agitators was indeed a contemporary view (and Heffer quotes The Times expressing it) but it was not true. Working-class people had developed class consciousness over the industrial revolution and incorporated socialist ideas over most of the century (the term was first used in 1835). They sometimes chose leaders of better education to articulate their feelings, but the feelings were genuine. The notion that middle-class left wingers were “often fuelled by class guilt” is more pencil-sucking than analysis.
Skilled workers might have been happy with the lot that their trade unionism had brought them, including the election of Liberal MPs, but the match girls, gas workers and dockers who made the big waves at the end of the century were unrepresented by Liberals. It was the impetus of the dissatisfaction of unskilled workers, along with legal attacks on unions (including those of the skilled workers such as the engineers) that gave birth to the Labour Party in 1900.
One of the problems of this account is too much reliance on received wisdom – Heffer is not sufficiently familiar with the terrain of Labour activism, as he is with the machinations of parliamentary grandees. He accepts without question that middle class Annie Besant led the match girls’ strike. In fact, as Louise Raw’s research for her 2009 book Striking a Light shows, Besant was nowhere near the match factory when the strike began, and unaware of it until a deputation of strikers came to her office days later. She then did invaluable work in publicising the dispute and the working conditions that gave rise to it. Heffer is never inside meetings of the socialists or the suffragettes as he is in those of Chamberlain, Rosebery and Salisbury. He is at home in the corridors of power, but absent from the streets of unrest.
Age of Decadence appreciates the near-disaster of the Boer War of 1899-1902 as a key event in the development of national uncertainty and imperial decline. The larger event of the First World War has concealed from us how powerful the shocks of the early defeats at the hands of the Boers were to a nation that had no doubt of its superiority in all things. Heffer is sensitive and thoughtful about the empire, noting it is “hard to find evidence that the mother country made an overall profit”. It is probable that by the end of the 1890s the empire was costing more than it was worth in monetary terms.
There is much to enjoy in this long account, packed with detail about such things as stamp-collecting mogul Stanley Gibbons’s five wives; the Marconi scandal; Asquith pining over his daughter’s best friend; and Beatrice Webb’s dismay at the Fabians’ failure to find a workable standard for sexual relations for the left (good luck with that one). There is welcome attention paid to the literary as evidenced in chapter headings “The Decline of the Pallisers” (referring to Anthony Trollope’s parliamentary novels) or “The Rise of the Pooters” (a nod to the clerk narrator of The Diary of a Nobody); and discussion of now neglected writers such as Arthur Wing Pinero and John Galsworthy.
At around 325,000 words it is an enormous, spine-straining work. This bulk shows its cost in the quality of writing, which is never poor, but lacks the vigour of, say, George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England covering a part of this period and which Heffer cites approvingly.
This was a time of excess and exuberance and was undoubtedly decadent in that sense. For some it was also decadent in the sense of decline, as Victorian certainties tumbled. Other ideas were on the rise, however: women, the working class and nationalists could celebrate this period as one not of decadence but ascendancy.
The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914
Random House Books, 912pp, £30