... 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.
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.