What’s the big idea?

Jonathan Parry

  • The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914 by Simon Heffer
    Random House, 912 pp, £30.00, September 2017, ISBN 978 1 84794 742 0

Simon Heffer has had an idea. He has had them before, but he has fattened this one up into a book of enormous proportions. Huge quantities of factual narrative have been injected into it, in the hope of beguiling reviewers into acknowledging its historical respectability. For all that, the underlying argument is simple – the title gives it away. Britain began to go to the dogs in the period between 1880 and 1914. That was because the ruling classes forgot how to rule and became corrupted by wealth and the attendant vices of materialism.

Like all good Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph journalists, Heffer finds a great deal to be indignant about. The social rot that – in his account – spread relentlessly through state and society in these years came from the very top. As prince of Wales and then king, Edward VII gambled, had mistresses and corrupted his protectors into indulging his whims, while his son was linked to the sordid allegations about aristocrats and male prostitutes in Cleveland Street. Edward was particularly obsessed with dress, which advertised wealth and disguised flabbiness of all kinds. He attacked his mother’s prime ministers for their sartorial shortcomings: Lord Rosebery was rebuked for dressing like an American and Lord Salisbury for attending the queen wearing the trousers of an Elder Brother of Trinity House (Salisbury had to apologise: he had been preoccupied by ‘some subject of less importance’). The monarchy started to celebrate vulgar swagger: the Mall became an avenue for pompous ceremony. By the time Buckingham Palace’s grand new façade was completed, George V, another stickler for dress, was on the throne. He even insisted on a strutting ornateness featuring Britannia and seahorses for the high-value stamps issued in his reign. Stamp-collecting was made fashionable by the pharmacist Edward Stanley Gibbons, who was also remarkable for his prolific sexual adventures and the fact that three of his wives succumbed to ailments that suggested poison. Joseph Boehm, who designed the commemorative coins for the 1887 Jubilee, may – but then again may not – have died in flagrante with Queen Victoria’s ‘bohemian’ daughter Princess Louise. Politicians used smart dress to cover poor morals: Joseph Chamberlain sported a monocle and an orchid but behaved badly to the future Beatrice Webb. The Liberal prime minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman ate so much that he ballooned to twenty stone.

The ruling class was free to behave in this appalling way, Heffer asserts, because of ‘the decline of the spiritual’, though he doesn’t have much to say about it. The middle classes were left free to ape materialist aristocratic values, typified by Mr Pooter, and schoolboys lapped up the snobbish school stories of Frank Richards. They also demanded new sporting heroes: many cricketers became celebrities, particularly if they cultivated swagger. W.G. Grace maintained his stardom because few knew he had a squeaky voice, but several other on-field heroes – A.E. Stoddart, William Scotton, Arthur Shrewsbury – killed themselves after their careers ended, unable to cope with the loss of fame and/or money. Audiences demanded swagger in music too, forcing that poor ambitious provincial Edward Elgar to respond with ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. It was the relentless media coverage of imperial activities that made it necessary to boast of empire. The Boer War of 1899 was the fruit of a national thirst for money, jewels and glory but the failure to win it easily exposed the hypocrisy of upbeat imperial language: the reality was the concentration camps used to house captured Boers. Military difficulties also created alarm at the physical inadequacies of the race. The 1901 census revealed a disturbing rise in the number of imbeciles and lunatics, perhaps because the question seemed to tempt householders to classify their dependants as one or the other. Statistics also indicated a relentless increase in syphilis and an appalling amount of drunkenness. All this encouraged talk of eugenics and sterilising the feeble-minded. Baden-Powell set up the Boy Scouts because so much was wrong with society. Poor boys stole; middle-class ones knew no danger. A woman drowned in the Hampstead Ponds because the men nearby couldn’t swim. Boys’ teeth were so bad that they couldn’t eat hard biscuits on military campaigns. They also needed to learn to ‘breathe through the nose, not the mouth’.

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[*] Michael Foot reviewed Heffer’s Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle in the LRB of 11 May 1995.