Review published on October 31, 2017.
Simon Heffer, journalist and historian, reminds us of world that Britain has long looked at through various degrees of rose-tinted spectacles. One would expect that a right-wing journalist such as Heffer would offer up a polemic on lost Victorian values and a world where everyone knew their place. Rather, we are given an excellently researched and beautifully written, balanced account of a changing world.
The prose that Heffer uses paints some spectacular pictures for the imagination, with the prologue describing Victoria’s jubilee service outside of St Paul’s being an outstanding example of this. When describing the Queen and the copes of the bishops, there is a postcard on St Paul’s website, which is the pictorial version of the picture Heffer paints.
Simon Heffer rises to the challenge of a Britain with a social structure that was rotten to the core, where there was a massive gulf between the rich and everyone else. Between 1880 and 1914, how the few squandered the wealth that previous generations built up, when 10% of the population owned over 90% of the country’s wealth.
Heffer guides the reader effortlessly through the beginning of William Gladstone’s second administration to the summer of 1914, where Ireland was on the brink of civil war over Home Rule. Heffer shows that Britain may have had the greatest empire the world had ever seen, the splendour of home was nothing more an illusion. There was social unrest, people’s voices from below were getting louder and challenging the status quo.
Where the prologue shows the pomp and circumstance that Britain is so good at, the following chapters stand in juxtaposition to that. Showing the challenges that Britain was facing with Ireland, poverty and Votes for Women, to the rise of the Labour Party and growing union militancy, not forgetting the challenge to trade tariffs.
Heffer ably describes the challenges to the aristocracy and how the 1911 Parliament Act may be seen as the beginning of their decline in public life. How with the double standards and sex scandals that were prevalent but hidden away from the ‘other classes’. Not forgetting that there was a homosexual brothel on Cleveland Street that operated with the full cooperation of the ruling class in 1889. The sexual proclivities of the rich and the double standards when condemning the poor for similar.
This book is packed with so much detail it shows the extent of the scholarship and research and over the 800 pages you cannot help but learn something new. Simon Heffer has not left a stone unturned, and he has discovered items in archives that help to illustrate this period and make the book an excellent read.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Paul Diggett 5/5
The Age of Decadence by Simon Heffer
Random House Books 9781847947420 hbk Sep 2017
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