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  • Published: 15 October 2018
  • ISBN: 9780099592242
  • Imprint: Windmill Books
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 912
  • RRP: $38.00

The Age of Decadence

Britain 1880 to 1914

A major new work by one of Britain’s leading journalists and most acclaimed historians

‘A riveting account of the pre-First World War years . . . The Age of Decadence is an enormously impressive and enjoyable read.’ Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times

‘A magnificent account of a less than magnificent epoch.’ Jonathan Meades, Literary Review

The folk-memory of Britain in the years before the Great War is of a powerful, contented, orderly and thriving country. She commanded a vast empire. She bestrode international commerce. Her citizens were living longer, profiting from civil liberties their grandparents only dreamt of, and enjoying an expanding range of comforts and pastimes. The mood of pride and self-confidence is familiar from Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches, newsreels of George V’s coronation and the London’s great Edwardian palaces.

Yet things were very different below the surface. In The Age of Decadence Simon Heffer exposes the contradictions of late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain. He explains how, despite the nation’s massive power, a mismanaged war against the Boers in South Africa created profound doubts about her imperial destiny. He shows how attempts to secure vital social reforms prompted the twentieth century’s gravest constitutional crisis and coincided with the worst industrial unrest in British history. He describes how politicians who conceded the vote to millions more men disregarded women so utterly that female suffragists’ public protest bordered on terrorism. He depicts a ruling class that fell prey to degeneracy and scandal. He analyses a national psyche that embraced the motor-car, the sensationalist press and the science fiction of H. G. Wells, but also the Arts and Crafts of William Morris and the nostalgia of A. E. Housman. And he concludes with the crisis that in the summer of 1914 threatened the existence of the United Kingdom – a looming civil war in Ireland.

He lights up the era through vivid pen-portraits of the great men and women of the day – including Gladstone, Parnell, Asquith and Churchill, but also Mrs Pankhurst, Beatrice Webb, Baden-Powell, Wilde and Shaw – creating a richly detailed panorama of a great power that, through both accident and arrogance, was forced to face potentially fatal challenges.

‘A devastating critique of prewar Britain . . . disturbingly relevant to the world in which we live.’ Gerard DeGroot, The Times
‘You won’t put it down . . . A really riveting read.’ Rana Mitter, BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking

  • Published: 15 October 2018
  • ISBN: 9780099592242
  • Imprint: Windmill Books
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 912
  • RRP: $38.00

About the author

Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer was born in 1960. He read English at Cambridge and took a PhD in modern history at that university. His previous books include: Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle, Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell, Power and Place: The Political Consequences of King Edward VII, Nor Shall My Sword: The Reinvention of England, Vaughan Williams, Strictly English, A Short History of Power, Simply English and High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain. In a thirty-year career in Fleet Street, he has held senior editorial positions on The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, and is now a columnist for The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph.

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Praise for The Age of Decadence

A riveting account of the pre-First World War years . . . A gloriously rich history . . . Balanced and judicious . . . The Age of Decadence is an enormously impressive and enjoyable read.

Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times

Heffer has given us a magnificent account of a less than magnificent epoch . . . Vital and energetic.

Jonathan Meades, Literary Review


Sam Leith, Spectator

The Age of Decadence is an impressively well-constructed book . . . Heffer weaves his wonderfully diverse strands of inquiry into a devastating critique of prewar Britain . . . Heffer’s criticism of unbridled traditionalism is devastating and convincing. It’s also disturbingly relevant to the world in which we live.

The Times

Mr Heffer combines a scholar’s command of the primary literature with a journalist’s eye for detail. He writes with admirable sensitivity about both music and literature: a better account of Elgar or Arnold Bennett would be hard to find. He does a brilliant job of exposing the rot beneath the glittering surface of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain . . . He writes with such exuberance – indeed with such Edwardian swagger – that he leaves the reader looking forward to his next volume.

The Economist

A rich social history of a time when progress and cruelty collided . . . Heffer provides a painfully relevant story about the dangerous decadence of traditionalism.

Books of the Year, The Times

Monumental . . . [Heffer writes] with much illuminating detail to carry the story forward.


[An] intelligent, richly detailed and comprehensive survey.

Allan Massie, Standpoint

The Age of Decadence will be consulted with pleasure by the general reader as well as by the student . . . So well written that one would not have it a page shorter.

Vernon Bogdanor, Daily Telegraph

The rise of the middle class is just one of the grand narratives that runs through its pages, along with Irish Home Rule, women’s suffrage and a taste of Elgar . . . A really riveting read.

Rana Mitter, BBC Radio 3, Free Thinking

This is scholarship of a high order: an impressive ability to synthesise wide-ranging sources and provide a cogent, readable narrative is spiced by the confident opinions, not to say barbs, of the newspaper columnist.

Country Life

Covers as much ground as the miles of Edwardian housing spreading out along the new Tube lines of London, and is as packed with pompous politicians as the House of Commons was on a busy day in the debate about Irish Home Rule. The fact that I now know about all those things shows how rewarding the book is.

Book of the Week, Daily Mail

An account of the thirty years or so leading up to the First World War . . . [Heffer] is interested in exploring the political and social tumult of the time, which really can’t be exaggerated

Jim Naughtie, BBC Radio 4, Today

Simon Heffer’s Age of Decadence covers a period of British history – 1880 to 1914 – that few would at first sight equate with decadence. As the British Empire reached its height, stiff upper lips seemed more in evidence than the louche trappings of decadence. Yet Heffer makes a convincing (and beautifully written) case that those upper lips were in fact quivering away, as the world went clanking towards its destruction.

Andrew Roberts

Heffer’s history of fin-de-siècle Britain is full of decadent delights . . . Richly and wittily written.

Books of the Year, Sunday Times

There is a view, commonly held, that grand narrative histories are a thing of the past . . . This view is mistaken, as Simon Heffer proves happily and beyond doubt with his latest book.

Catholic Herald

There is much to enjoy in this long account, packed with detail.

New Statesman

A superb history

Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph

Beautifully written and packed with intriguing facts, [The Age of Decadence] is an engaging read that will appeal to historians and general readers alike . . . Superb.

Book of the Week, The Lady

A social, political and cultural history of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, carefully examining the contradictions of the period . . . Highly readable.

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine

[Heffer] has really excelled himself with this epic study of Britain in the years before the First World War. Majestic in its scope, meticulous in its scholarship, compelling in its thesis and stylish in its prose, his heavyweight book challenges the familiar historical tale of confidence and swagger and presents the age in a more complex, sombre light . . . The author has done an extraordinary amount of research, unearthing a wealth of new material from archives. . . . It is impossible to read this magnificent work without gaining a deep new understanding of a unique and troubled age.

Daily Express

[One of] the best historical books to gift others this Christmas.

Daily Mail

Heffer has turned himself into one of Britain’s most accomplished and formidable men of letters . . . Heffer is a genuine intellectual with a shelf of books to his credit.

Peter Oborne, Spectator

An epic survey . . . Simon Heffer’s intricately detailed account ends with Britain diminished and on the brink of catastrophe.

Jane Shilling, ‘Must Reads’, Daily Mail

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