... gloriously rich ... As in his previous history of the mid-Victorian period, Heffer’s scope is vast. Almost nothing escapes him ... While Heffer’s treatment of politics is strikingly even-handed, his portraits of the royal family are positively blistering ... Heffer is very good not just on the Pooters’ growing political importance but also on the kind of things they read ... As a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, Heffer is best known for his extremely trenchant opinions, so some readers may be surprised by his book’s balanced and judicious tone. But The Age of Decadence is an enormously impressive and enjoyable read, all the same. Heffer has a brilliant eye for anecdotes ... every now and again there is a flash of the Heffer readers will recognise from his columns.
There are many pleasures to be had in this fine book, not the least of which is the vivacity of Heffer’s prose. A columnist for The Sunday Telegraph as well as a historian, he writes elegantly but punchily, combining seriousness with welcome flashes of waspishness that stop things from getting stuffy ... Heffer has little interest in debates among historians on the period, but unlike many general surveys of this kind, he does not rely just on secondary literature and makes excellent use of wide-ranging archival research. That approach gives the book a fresh perspective, although not necessarily a new one. What is striking about The Age of Decadence is that it brings us full circle to the view the late Victorians and Edwardians so often had of themselves and it echoes George Dangerfield’s seminal 1935 book The Strange Death of Liberal England, which evocatively depicted how 'by the end of 1913 Liberal England was reduced to ashes.' In Heffer’s telling it is perhaps less ashes to ashes than an overripe piece of fruit rotting and putrefying in front of our eyes ... a masterpiece of pacing ... By the final pages, Heffer has skillfully conjured a country in chaos and heading over the edge.
... boisterously satisfying ... Here are Heffer’s weaknesses, including a notable tendency to chase hares into the weeds (it requires a certain kind of wayward courage for a writer to hit his readers with five solid pages about Edwardian municipal architecture before they’ve even got their hats off). And here also are his strengths: encyclopedic knowledge, a deft ear for the right quotations, and a flair for dramatic character-portraits ... The Age of Decadence has great swaths of fascinating stuff on, as mentioned, architecture, and also art, music, apparel, as well as social upheavals, financial upheavals, political upheavals, and of course the increasingly audible murmur of war. And through it all, his focal points are people rather than trends ... Heffer is enthusiastically conscientious about making sure that upper-class swagger doesn’t dominate the book, even though most of the events in these pages are owned and moved around by Ribblesdale & Co. ... The Age of Decadence does an indomitable job of warning against the illusion—most of the signs of upheaval had been sporadically visible long before the Somme—and manages to be captivating reading in the process.
Heffer shows a love for the landed gentry, an affectionate joshing of the middle class – keep at it, you’ll get there, chaps – but a caution bordering on bewilderment for the working class. He sees unrest not as a positive working out of aspirations, but as the failing of 'a ruling class whose decadence had provoked the often successful challenges of the Labour movement' ... The idea that workers were misled into socialism by middle class agitators was indeed a contemporary view but it was not true ... The notion that middle-class left wingers were 'often fuelled by class guilt' is more pencil-sucking than analysis ... One of the problems of this account is too much reliance on received wisdom – Heffer is not sufficiently familiar with the terrain of Labour activism, as he is with the machinations of parliamentary grandees ... There is much to enjoy in this long account ... At around 325,000 words it is an enormous, spine-straining work. This bulk shows its cost in the quality of writing, which is never poor, but lacks the vigour of, say, George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England covering a part of this period and which Heffer cites approvingly.
... monumental but inevitably selective ... It is certainly a useful summary, with much illuminating detail to carry the story forward ... Heffer is equally good on the suffragettes and provides details of their brutal treatment. But considering the wealth of more significant detail available, do we really need ten pages on the shallow and selfish views and habits of H.G. Wells, and another eight on the tedious scandal of Lord Arthur Somerset? ... The whole drama is well described here, but no new details are added to the many previous accounts. Heffer takes his book’s title from that of a lecture by A.J. Balfour — a man far better equipped for philosophy than for the role of prime minister, and who never bothered to read the newspapers — but is not wholly appropriate. And since few people will read this book from cover to cover, it would have been helpful to have published it in two volumes instead of the present monster, which weighs in at over three and a half pounds.
... dense ... The author’s level of detail will daunt casual readers, but those who like their history long and leisurely will enjoy his approach. He offers similarly in-depth treatments of various juicy scandals among the Marlborough House Set, the louche circle formed around the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), and he shows how they were examples of the triviality and sexual hypocrisy of Britain’s upper classes ... Heffer comes across as middle-of-the-road politically and socially: He deplores Britain’s economic inequality and imperial injustices, but he depicts the strikes of trade union activists and the protests of militant suffragettes as provocative and needlessly divisive. Judicious but brief passages about the period’s culture, including exegeses of such paradigmatic works as John Galsworthy’s play Strife and H.G Wells’ novel Ann Veronica, somewhat leaven the heavy overall focus on political maneuvers ... Fans of sturdy, traditional history will appreciate this comprehensive survey.