Christopher Tietjens, with his brilliant mind, predicted long before the war that America would come out on top soon enough, and that that’s where the money would be. After he’s done soldiering, he goes into the antique furniture business, fixing up old pieces and selling them for a bundle to rich Americans. This is of course not terribly respectable, but it’s smart.
Who are these Americans on the cusp of taking over the world? Mark muses in his tent before the unexpected arrival of one such: “Nearly all he knew of Americans came from a book he had once read—about a woman like a hedge-sparrow, creeping furtive in hedgerows and getting into trouble with a priest….But no doubt there were other types.”
No doubt. The one who shows up is Mrs. de Bray Pape, a horribly vulgar (and wealthy) woman who is letting Groby, furnished. She believes she is “descended spiritually from the Maintenon,” lord knows why, but she certainly won’t shut up about it:
‘You are probably too haughtily aristocratic to speak to me, Sir Mark Tietjens. But I have in me the soul of the Maintenon; you are only the fleshly descendent of a line of chartered libertines. That is what Time and the New World have done to redress the balance of the old. It is we who are keeping up the status of the grands seigneurs of old in your so-called ancestral homes.’
She expects the children of Mark’s tenant farmers to bow to her as she passes in the street, as if she could rent his family name and history along with his house. It’s tragic what she does to Groby, but it turns out to be on some level their saving grace. Obsessed as she is with the Maintenon, Mrs. de Bray Pape has no sense of history—which mean she isn’t hobbled by it as Tietjens is. She can go into a place and throw out and tear down and rip up and clear out. Just as Christopher knew it would be the vulgar Americans without the burden of history on a cramped continent who would eventually come into England with their money and change just about everything. His eighteenth century—no, seventeenth century—no, sixteenth century Toryism can only be shaken up and shaken off with the help of this awful woman, who convinces Mark that the curse on their house has been lifted and brings him—impossibly as it seems—peace.
I could write about this book without saying anything for ages, and there are more beautiful passages than I could possibly quote in any kind of structured posts. Don’t worry, there will be re-reads someday. I would like to thank once more Mel U of The Reading Life for organizing an unstructured group read of Parade’s End, without which I would surely have waited years more to experience this amazing work.