The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914 by Simon Heffer - review by Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades

Rogues’ Gallery

The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914


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Simon Heffer has assembled in this book a cast of hundreds, which forms a sort of linear pageant. Like a puppet master he makes the most important (or retrospectively important) figures of the long prelude to catastrophe pop up and flit out of his thematically configured, temporally jumbled chapters in endlessly mutating roles.

Thus, here is H G Wells, a ‘scientific Jules Verne’ – the epithet is Oscar Wilde’s – corresponding with the young Winston Churchill, a fellow eugenics enthusiast, about the pace of social change, shocking the professedly unshockable with his lavish promiscuity, incurring the wrath of St Loe Strachey, who combined editing The Spectator with running the National Social Purity Crusade, being patronised by the risibly snobbish Virginia Woolf, who wasn’t fit to tie his bootlaces (nor James Joyce’s, come to that), squabbling with more orthodox Fabians, championing feminism but practising domestic servitude, preaching socialism but deprecating trade unions, and commissioning a house at Sandgate from the ne plus ultra of architectural nostalgists, C F A Voysey, presumably as an insurance against the baleful future of technological belligerence he soothsaid (not the word he’d have used).

Here is another man of marked inconsistencies, the chilling hypocrite Edward Carson (Heffer felicitously calls him ‘cemetery faced’), prosecuting a Parnellite MP, representing the Marquess of Queensberry against Wilde, agitating against Home Rule, trying to goad H H Asquith into launching a civil war, brandishing the threat of armed insurrection

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