The Passing Bells by Phillip Rock
Publisher: William Morrow
Date: December 4, 2012 (reissue)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Book Summary: The guns of August are rumbling throughout Europe in the summer of 1914, but war has not yet touched Abingdon Pryory. Here, at the grand home of the Greville family, the parties, dances, and romances play on. Alexandra Greville embarks on her debutante season while brother Charles remains hopelessly in love with the beautiful, untitled Lydia Foxe, knowing that his father, the Earl of Stanmore, will never approve of the match. Downstairs the new servant, Ivy, struggles to adjust to the routines of the well-oiled household staff, as the arrival of American cousin Martin Rilke, a Chicago newspaperman, causes a stir.
But, ultimately, the Great War will not be denied, as what begins for the high-bred Grevilles as a glorious adventure soon takes its toll—shattering the household’s tranquility, crumbling class barriers, and bringing its myriad horrors home.
My Thoughts: I’ve always enjoyed fiction about life in England, particularly the first half of the 20th century. I’m also a big fan of Downton Abbey. So it was an easy decision to read and review The Passing Bells for TLC Book Tours. This book begins at Abingdon Pryory, the home of Anthony Greville, Earl of Stanmore, his wife, Lady Hanna and their children, Charles, Alexandria and William. The set-up is much like that of Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs in section one of the book, focusing on the life of the Goreville’s family, friends and servants. All the while, the dogs of war are beginning to growl in the background, looming ominously. And when the Great War does come, the book’s focus changes. The story develops certain characters while others are left to making occasional cameo appearances. I enjoyed the way Phillip Rock structured The Passing Bells because sections two through four allows us to know certain characters intimately and in great detail, particularly in terms of how the Great War impacts them.
One of my favorite of characters is Martin Rilke, an American writer and journalist. A nephew of Lady Hanna Rilke, Martin stops to visit Lord and Lady Greville before embarking on a tour of Europe. Martin hails from Chicago and is an American through and through. The differences between him and the Grevilles are apparent as soon as Charles Greville and his friend, Roger, meet Martin. Although Charles and Rogers’ mannerisms, accents and behavior grate on Martin, he doesn’t take offense. They’ve been raised to be proper English gentleman, as befits their peerage. When Martin sees them taking note of his ill-fitting jacket as contrasted with their expertly-tailored, perfectly fitting clothes, he knows he’s not being judged. How they behave is who they are. They sound like snobs to me but they’re without any airs or pretensions. Martin’s easy manner, understanding and amiability help him fit in wherever he goes as well as making him the good journalist he is.
Martin, unlike his wealthy relatives, is aware there are servants all around Abingdon Pryory. He isn’t used to being waited on and finds it awkward and uncomfortable. He makes a point of engaging the young, new maid, Ivy Thaxton, in conversation the second time he runs into her. He parts from Ivy, reluctantly, following their conversation. Martin is smitten and The Great War will be to Martin’s advantage in this pursuit. He encounters Ivy in the streets of London where she’s training to be an army nurse. Martin is thrilled to see her again, although she’ll take some convincing the class structure is not an impediment to their relationship.
Martin remains in England after his tour, having procured a job with the Daily Post writing a column about life in Britain from a Yank’s point of view. When the Great War begins, his writing turns to war-related topics. As a journalist with a desire to be at the crux of things, Martin, with quiet determination, sees and hears what’s happening at the front and with the managing of the troops by the top brass. It’s shocking, hair-raising stuff. There’s no organization. Communication between the War Office and the front-lines is negligible and the orders to the men in charge of the troops make no sense. As a result, soldiers are injured and dying. Martin is barred from getting the truth published because those in charge want articles that will garner public support for the war effort. Martin observes the toll the war is taking on Charles, Roger and Charles’ friend, Colonel Fenton Wood-Lacy and their continued willingness to sacrifice all for Britain. He’s extremely proud of them and feels the truth of the daily horrors they and the other soldiers encounter must be told. Martin’s more than willing to come out of the shadows by calling attention to himself, so long as he can get the truth out there.
The Great War is a central theme in this book. It alters the perspective of almost everyone involved in ways big and small. Alexandria Greville, for instance, matures from a giddy schoolgirl into a serious young woman. Early in the book, she’s planning her debut. By section four, she’s training to be an army nurse. I found it difficult to read the sections in this book that detail the war battles and, in the aftermath, the soldiers’ injuries. The narrative describes scenes that are grisly, raw and graphic. One thing the book does so well is show not only how people who fought were changed but how the powers that be, through business and politics, profited. In this there is no denying the bitterness and unfairness of war that so many were forced to swallow.
The Passing Bells is the first of a trilogy. The story of the Grevilles, their family and friends continues in Circles of Time and concludes with A Future Arrived. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of their story and will be reviewing those books in the coming months. I highly recommend this book, especially to fans of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey.
Thank you to TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for the opportunity to read and review The Passing Bells.