Thursday, December 6, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Passing Bells by Phillip Rock

Here’s something I really enjoy: good old-fashioned, multi-POV, epic historical fiction. It’s what I cut my teeth on. And even though I don’t read as much of it these days (it seems to have fallen out of fashion somewhat) when I do read one of these novels, I’m hooked.

I saw mention of The Passing Bells by Phillip Rock at Historical Tapestries, actually a guest post by The Savvy Reader, that talked about favorite WWI books. The Savvy Reader recommended the book for Downton Abbey fans. I haven’t seen the show but people have told me I would enjoy it. A book described as Downton Abbey-like sounded like the next best thing. My library had a copy so. . .

The Passing Bells is the story of the Greville family, including Anthony Greville who is the 9th earl of Stanmore, his wife the countess, his two adult sons (Charles and William) and a daughter (Alexandra), friends of the family who are slightly lesser in rank-- Captain Fenton Wood-Lacy and Roger Wood-Lacy, an heiress whom Charles is being pushed to court, Winifred Sutton, and an exceptionally wealthy and gorgeous neighbor/childhood friend, Lydia Foxe. The boys are in love with Lydia, but her father, Archie Foxe is not a gentleman. (He’s a perfectly nice man, it’s just he’s made his money in trade and has anti-aristocratic political views.) There is also an American cousin of the Greville’s– Martin Rilke, who is a journalist come to England intent on a 6 week or so European tour. His plans are disrupted. And then there are numerous servants in the Greville’s household, Abingdon Pryory (misspelling intentional). The most significant of the servants are the chaffeur/mechanic, Jamie Ross, and an upstairs maid, Ivy Thraxton.

The novel introduces us to all these people, letting us know their backgrounds and their desires and what is keeping them from obtaining their desires. The rigid class system appears to be the driving force in each of their lives, whether they are reluctantly accepting of their positions or trying to clamber above their station (or marry below it.) The characters and their dilemmas are well-developed and were interesting enough to keep me reading, but the pace was pretty slow starting out. I had to keep reading because it’s the kind of book that if I put it down for too long, I might not have picked it back up--not at first. And yet, I didn't exactly want to put it down either. I was quietly sucked in.

This book has been around awhile. It’s copyright is 1978. It’s a WWI novel, but here’s the thing. It’s 433 pages long, and it wasn’t until page 108 that a passing reference to the assassination of the Archduke of Austria appeared. The war did not begin until page 150. Before the men rushed off to battle, the author makes certain you are emotionally invested in the characters. And not just in the characters, but in what is happening to the home front. You understand the way of life, warts and all. The amount of time spent on character development is well worth it.

Before the war, men are discussing the Serbia situation with little understanding and less interest. Once the war begins, they fight dutifully and patriotically, but there is little sense, from the novel at least, that winning will accomplish anything but the end of horrific, meaningless slaughter. In the meantime, the way of life that they knew was unraveling behind them.

With the beginning of the war, the pace of the narrative picks up. By then, I was fully committed to the characters and I was quite deeply immersed in the war-time plots. With so many characters to follow, it did have a bit of a soap opera quality, moving from one storyline to another. Yet their lives were intricately intertwined so the overall story flowed well. As the war draws to its close, the book also drew to its devastating end. I didn’t realize just how addicted I was until I found myself requesting Book Two in the Greville saga, Circles of Time from the library. I want to know how they (the ones left) move on after the war.


  1. I think I would really enjoy this one, it sounds great. Thanks for letting me know about it, I am going to see if I can order a copy from the library.

  2. Great review, Susan! I'm really looking forward to getting started on this one, whenever that may be.

  3. It sounds like a great accompaniment to Downton Abbey.

  4. The book has been re-issued and is available on-line everywhere.