The last five years has seen much in the way of remembrance services and solemn acknowledgements of sacrifice made by all those lost during the Great War. Indeed, the “war to end all wars” has sustained a poignancy across Europe unique in the twenty-first century, a type of grief often only otherwise reserved for personal loss. It is a perceived loss of an old Europe – a creative, confident, and romantic Europe, such as that mourned in Stefan Zweig’s Die Welt von Gestern.

Zweig conveys a view of Europe in 1914 as a paradise lost amid a concentrated whirlwind of destruction. That sense of cliff-edge catastrophe is still held among many contemporary historians, in commendable scholarly undertakings such as Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers or Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace. But for anyone living the thirty years or so predating the July Crisis, and particularly those living in Britain and Ireland, the late Victorian and Edwardian age was not a calm cosy haze but a taut and tense affair brimming with unrest. Enter the refreshing undertaking of historian and journalist Simon Heffer.

Heffer’s new book, Staring at God, which deals with homefront during the convulsions of 1914-1919, was released in the autumn of this year. But it is only in the context laid out in its 2017 predecessor, The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880-1914, that the true experience of the home front upheaval can be understood. The Great War may have been unforseen as the final cataclysm for an old Europe, yet that old world was straining beneath a swelling tempest for a decade before this, if not longer. 

Heffer’s view of Britain is in stark contrast to the Zweigian world of international bourgeois intellectualism. The Age of Decadence, as the title suggests, presents the full scope of an industrial empire at its zenith – and the dual reaction that comes to a civilisation when stretched to the bounds of its hegemony: profound angst for those who sense the strain on the one hand; idle decadence for those oblivious, on the other. Where Zweig saw confidence, Heffer sees a boastful swagger, often unwarranted; where Zweig sees a burgeoning continental literary scene, Heffer retells how men such as Liberal MP Samuel Smith, sought to curtail the infection of continental realism, then seen as ‘sheer beastliness’ arriving from a France which was ‘rapidly approaching the condition of Rome in the time of the Caesars’. There is no tranquil peace to be found here, but a brooding sense of a violent civil war in Ireland.

So how does one set the pre-war age in context? Heffer introduces us to the 1880s on the back of his 2013 High Minds, which deals with the rise of Victoriana. For the first 200 pages of Decadence he portrays a multi-class analysis contained within one nation, imperial yet vulnerable. Beginning with a focus on the degrading status of the old aristocratic order, rather than the more traditional route of detailing the rising middle or the growing labour class, Heffer places the social cohesion of the period on loose foundations, setting the tone of unease which stalks the work.

Despite an influence which had been declining since the days of the Great Reform Act, it is clear that this was an era in which aristocrats still dominated the House of Commons, and the Lords maintained a veto. The perpetual panic amongst the class of their waning authority is conveyed in expert detail by Heffer, who intwines the work of the great novelists of the age with this experience of unease. 

One such writer who captured the mood of the upper class deterioration was John Galsworthy, whose works Country House and The Man of Property give a ‘romantic attachment to the old landed classes’, a privileged and proud people now made idle by the ‘more self-serving and materialistic types who took their place’. This sense of rot is embodied in the scandal-riddled figures of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII and his eldest son Albert Victor. The former’s deviances, both inside and outside the bedroom, filled the likes of Lord Salisbury with contempt. The latter would be associated with the Cleveland Street scandal which saw figures of upper class Britain named as being clientele to a male brothel.

Nor was the decadence of the time purely a result of upper class behaviour. The ‘Great Unrest’, which encompassed industrial conflicts such as the Cambrian Combine Strike and the Tonypandy Riots, was prescient of the union’s role in twentieth century Britain. Galsworthy, again with his finger on the pulse, detailed in his play Strife how the older generation of working class men viewed the younger strikers with a certain scepticism. A feeling that young working class men were growing decadent and were unable or unwilling to put in the toil of their elders. Even Ramsay McDonald, the future Labour Prime Minister, blamed the unrest on the ‘decay of good breeding and of clean, serious living,’ which, ‘was everywhere apparent.’ He saw the new rich as no longer the ‘betters’ of the working class. The noblesse oblige was dead.

From this pervasive decadence, the imperialist class sensed a coming dislocation and dismemberment. In The Age of Decadence, Heffer shows how internal insecurity heightened concerns around the imperial project. Many figures emerge with the aim of preserving British global dominance, none more so than Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary under Salisbury and Balfour. Whilst reading his attempts at solidification of empire, one is reminded of King Cnut attempting to curtail the rising tide. He wished to unify South Africa by entering Britain into the second Boer War, but its longevity and guerrilla like nature only led to a reduction in military morale; his attempt at Tariff Reform split the Tory party, which led to the Liberal landslide in the 1906 election, which eventually resulted in the re-assertion of the great Irish Home Rule question which dogged British politics in the months and years immediately preceding the July Crisis. Now it was not only the empire which floundered, but the integrity of the United Kingdom itself.

Heffer’s tone could be suggestive of a changing view amongst historians of the apparent tranquility of pre-war Britain, it is notable that David Cannadine, in his Victorious Century (2017), has picked the 1906 Liberal election as the endpoint of Britain’s sense of triumph and comfort. It is something to bear in mind when thinking of the destruction brought about by the Great War. The brutality and scale of the 1914-1918 conflagration was largely unimaginable – such is always the case once a breaking point is achieved. Yet one must remember that before the point is reached, the cracks are long on show.

Posted by John Hughes

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