The epoch whose final years are the subject of this book exploded in a terminal crisis which is one of the great facts of history. The Great War of 1914-18 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours. In wiping out so many lives on the years which would have been operative on the years that followed, in destroying beliefs, changing ideas, and leaving incurable wounds of disillusion, it created a physical as well as psychological gulf between the two epochs. This book is an attempt to discover the quality of the world from which the Great War came.
So Barbara Tuchman opens her book The Proud Tower, from which we will take this week’s words and illustrative quotations. Those quotations, supplemented a bit of the author’s summations like the above, will attempt to convey in some small way a sense of the portrait the author paints.
At private dinner tables draped in smilax, with a footman behind each chair, gentlemen in white tie and tails conversed with ladies in clouds of tulle over bare shoulders, wearing stars of coronets in their elaborately piled hair. Conversation was not casual but an art "in which competence conferred prestige." At the opera, in the Royal Box glowed a vision in low-cut velvet, Lady Warwick, with "only a few diamonds on her Mephistophelian scarlet dress" and a scarlet aigrette in her hair. A battle array of lorgnettes was raised to see what Lady de Grey, her rival as London's best-dressed woman, was wearing.
smilax – a slender vine with glossy foliage, popular as a decoration [Latin “bindweed” from Greek] Mephistophelian – like the devil aigrette – an ornamental tuft of upright plumes (or, a plume-like spray of gems) [from French for “egret”] lorgnette – a pair of eyeglasses with a short handle [from French lorgner to peer at, to take a sidelong glance at; ultimately from lorgne squinting]