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The decadents: A.E. Housman, Beatrice Webb and, in a 1901 cartoon by Leslie Ward, Joseph Chamberlain


The title may surprise many, even offend some. Britain in 1914 was unquestionably one of the world’s Great Powers: immensely rich, its imperial dominion unchallenged, the Royal Navy master of the seas, the City of London the clearing-house for the global economy. Admittedly there were, or had been, problems. The first stages of the South African war (1899-1902) had been sadly mismanaged. There was deep industrial unrest; organised labour was on the march. The campaign for women’s suffrage had embarrassed the government. The attempt of the Liberal government to pass an Irish Home Rule Bill had provoked something close to rebellion in Protestant Ulster and even the threat of mutiny in the Army. So there were certainly difficulties, even a sense of crisis. But most of these could be paralleled elsewhere: in France and Germany, in Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, even in the United States of America. So how could this be reasonably called an Age of Decadence?

It might be at least as fair to speak of an Age of Improvement, for the period covered by Simon Heffer in this intelligent, richly detailed and comprehensive survey was in many respects a time of social reform and amelioration. There was a building boom in London and other great cities — Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. This took three forms: the erection of public and commercial buildings of scarcely precedented magnificence, the development of pleasing suburbs and, if slowly, determined and often imaginative schemes to improve the housing of the poor. In England there was for the first time a comprehensive system of national education with compulsory schooling for all children, while new colleges which would become universities were established throughout the provinces, giving young men from the working classes — D.H. Lawrence, for example — opportunities earlier generations had never enjoyed. Literature and other arts flourished; the England of Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams was no longer the “Land without Music”. There were municipal orchestras, museums, art galleries and theatres as never before. If the old landed aristocracy was in the process of being dislodged — Gladstone’s cabinets being the last to be dominated by dukes, marquises and earls — partly on account of the decades-long agricultural depression, which was the unavoidable consequence of the Free Trade that had contributed to the extraordinary economic growth of Victorian England, it was being replaced by a glittering plutocracy, of which Galsworthy’s Forsytes with their residences ringing Hyde Park may be taken as exemplars. There had never been a time — there would never be such a time again — when it was so agreeable to belong to the professional and commercial classes. Britain was richer than it had ever been, and the pound sovereign was gold.

Yet Simon Heffer’s identification of the period as one of Decadence can’t be dismissed out of hand, even if one adds the rider that evidence of Decadence, side by side with Progress, can be found in most ages. Heffer is well-known as a newspaper columnist, historian and the admiring biographer of Thomas Carlyle and Enoch Powell. He is a man of strong opinions, an unusual combination of the Puritan moralist and the Romantic patriot who is a lover of music, rural England and county cricket. He writes well about what he holds in contempt — his account of the Marconi case, a piece of shabby political corruption, is excellent, his treatment of the disgusting pseudo-science of eugenics promoted by the liberal and socialist intelligentsia is admirably contemptuous, but he writes better still about what he loves. He displays a strong dislike of Virginia Woolf but a tender affection for A.E. Housman who offers “a view of an England that is hallowed, the holy soil linked to a rarefied people and way of life honoured by time”. One remembers that Enoch Powell’s poetry was sub-Housman.

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