Capturing cultural mood—that is one of the great skills of Simon Heffer’s painterly pen. The sharpness of his writing is scarcely encapsulated by the blurbs that draw attention to his books. Instead, it is in his journalism of cultural perception—on writers, composers, poets, and others—that he reveals his insight, the vigor of his moral conservatism, and the strength of his searching understanding of aesthetic judgment.
These winning traits are found in his new book, The Age of Decadence, the successor to High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (2013). In his new opus, he captures the tensions “beneath the swagger,” notably, “the social storm before the international catastrophe.” In doing so, he offers a similar insight to one provided recently by David Cannadine: “the reality was that much of Britain’s nineteenth-century ‘greatness’ rested on insecure and transient foundations.” And it is understandable that, at least in conversation, many have compared and contrasted Heffer’s book with Cannadine’s Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800–1906 (2017). While both their authors are highly intelligent and perceptive commentators, they write from dissimilar backgrounds and adopt distinctive voices. Cannadine engages most successfully with the politics of his subject. Indeed, there is a form of homage to his first tutor, J. H. Plumb. Cannadine also considers Britain’s relation to the world abroad, as befits a scholar with positions at Princeton, Oxford, and London. And he adopts the British rather than the English approach, the latter of which, as he has accurately pointed out, is characterized by a near-exclusive focus on the English perspective.
Heffer, in contrast, has little to say about Scotland, and essentially ignores Wales prior to the strikes of 1911–12, although Ireland attracts a lot of his attention. Where Heffer really strikes home is the interweaving of politics, society, and culture. This involves a fine reading of a range of sources, from books to buildings. For example, Britain’s pre-war concern about Germany is in part discussed in terms of works by H. G. Wells, Saki (Hector Munro), P. G. Wodehouse, and, most dramatically, William Le Queux. This literature is not simply examined in terms of the German panic, but is also employed to consider assessments of British society, not least the strong social pessimism seen within the works of Le Queux and Saki.
The focus on these two, and the discussion of what happened to Saki, who, having enlisted overage, died on the Somme, is typical of Heffer’s successful style. He has a gift for choosing individuals of interest and for bringing forward instructive features and facts. The victorious 1911 prosecution, before the Lord Chief Justice, of Edward Mylius for circulating an inaccurate French newspaper account that the new king, the uxorious and somewhat dull and predictable George V, was a bigamist, is but one of the many fascinating vignettes in a star-studded array. Sex, rudeness, greed, and the press are repeatedly present. Thus, the position of women during the age comes with a discussion of illegitimacy and baby-farming, proceeding then to Amelia Dyer, hanged in 1896, who is thought to have murdered four hundred babies and who failed to get off on a plea of insanity. Next we are on to prostitution, which leads to the introduction of W. T. Stead, the editor of The Pall Mall Gazette, who exposed the practice of forcing girls into whoredom, making much money for his paper in the process. Stead stoked moral outrage, and this led to pressure that raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. Stead’s brief imprisonment, for a journalistic sting operation in which an agent acting for the Gazette “purchased” a thirteen-year-old girl to demonstrate the ease of sex trafficking, contributed to the furor. He was to die with the Titanic. With this and other issues, Heffer is particularly astute on the moral legislation of the period.
The focus on individuals may irritate those who like their history told in terms of social forces. That tack, however, presents a somewhat bloodless account. There is, indeed, a parallel with the debate over the John Keegan–style “Face of Battle” approach to military history. That technique captures the reality of war, that of killing and being killed, or, at least, being able and willing for both. To ignore that aspect is not only unhelpful to those trying to understand war, but also leaves a breach in one key aspect of history—that of the trust between the generations, the readiness to understand the experiences of forebears. At the same time, a simplistic focus on the “Face of Battle” risks becoming only the repetition of already accepted truths, and can fail to note, let alone explain, changes over time.
So also with the approach to history as a whole in terms of individual stories. It works best if handled by someone who is open to the wider picture and can bring out the interactions between individuals and circumstances. Heffer certainly provides this. Too many academics do not. Intellectual fashion prefers abstraction, or “micro-histories” that, all too often, can be worked hard to demonstrate not so much the values of the past as the would-be norms of the present.
Heffer aptly describes social strains, notably the syndicalism of the early 1910s that reflected pressures on productivity, technological challenges, and a drop in real wages. Returns on capital increased in part due to technological application, but this increase simply accentuated social contrasts. As Heffer notes, there was a fear of revolution right before the First World War. George V wrote to Herbert Asquith, his prime minister, that he was “very much disturbed by the present unrest among the working classes.” The army was large enough to be worth deploying, and the government was ready to do so. As with the Gordon Riots in London in 1780, when a neutral observer might have been forgiven for anticipating revolution in Britain, not France, before the end of the decade, so Britain looked more unstable than some of its continental counterparts.
This situation was exacerbated by the Irish Home Rule crisis, which portended rebellion in 1914. Heffer treats the troubling times with acuity. He concludes that, by 1914, British power was in decline:
A ruling class whose decadence had provoked the often successful challenges of the labour movement, and which had struggled to contain a private army of militant women, displayed the symptoms of weakness: but nothing was so emblematic of its decline as Britain’s inability to control what was happening in Ireland.
Maybe so, but the previous decade alone had seen Russia face defeat by Japan and an attempted revolution, and had witnessed successful attempts in China, Mexico, and Portugal, political crises in France, and social disorder in Spain. Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire were both in a febrile state. Alleged decline did not bring the anticipated revolution in Britain. World War I showed the resilience of England, Scotland, and most of the Empire. And when things came to a head in 1916, the overwhelming majority of the Irish did not rebel.
Heffer’s ideas are so exciting because they make you think. That surely is the job of the historian.
Heffer’s ideas are so exciting because they make you think. That surely is the job of the historian. Only an arrogant fool can expect all readers to agree entirely with him, while the notion of the “definitive work” is hugely ahistorical, as well as rather funny. What, instead, a writer wants is to provoke thought—including informed dissent. The most accurate work of history—one that notes the ambiguities of the past, the diversities of motives, and the complexities of causation—is not the one that corresponds with political and religious strategies, with utopian futures, or with public needs for clarity. An intelligent skepticism about predicting the future is the most pertinent lesson to be gleaned from the consideration of the past. As such, the informed study of history is a useful antidote to the often glib assumptions and predictions of politicians. Those who care nothing for the past will look sightlessly to the future. Heffer’s book is valuable not because we need agree with all of it, but because he offers the spectacles that will help further our perception of the past. In the meantime, who cannot enjoy reading someone who can write at once with such vim, such cadences, and such a fine ear for the texts of the age he has sought to honor as well as to understand and criticize?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 2, on page 67
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