In 1980, a read a book about an aristocratic English family during WWI that I absolutely adored. I was so enthusiastic about it that I promptly loaned it to my best friend who never thought of it again until about a year later when I asked for it back. She had no idea where my copy was. I was devastated. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to write down the title or author. I could only remember that bell was in the title.
Decades passed and the book never left my list of “to find titles.” When Internet search engines and online used book stores became available to me I searched again to no avail. Last month I was perusing the new release table at Barnes & Noble and a book title jumped out at me. The Passing Bells sounded vaguely familiar so I read the back description and checked the copyright date. “Originally published in 1978.” I stood and stared at the cover in stunned silence. I had found it again. It was a book miracle.
I immediately download a copy to my NOOK and commenced reading. After a long and unyielding quest, I wondered if time had romanticized my memory. Had The Passing Bells become my Holy Book Grail?
The summer of 1914 will mark the last days of a privileged way of life for many English aristocrats and the working class who served them. Political unrest is looming on the continent, but at Abingdon Pryory, the palatial grand manor house of the Greville family in Surrey, the pleasures of the ruling class continue as parties, dances, and romances are in full swing. The lord of the manor, Anthony Greville, 9th earl of Stanmore rides his favorite hunter Jupiter through his vast estate while his wife Hanna Rilke Greville, Countess Stanmore, plans the debut season in London of their beautiful young daughter Alexandria and worries about her eldest son Charles, whose studies at Cambridge and determination to marry Lydia Foxe, a wealthy local girl with no family connections are foremost on her mind. Up for a weekend in the country are family friends Captain Fenton Wood-Lacy of the Coldstream Guards, hard up for cash and seeking a bride, and the eccentric wife of the Marquees of Dexford and her dowdy youngest daughter Winifred hoping to spark a romance with the heir. Interestingly, Hanna’s American nephew Martin Rilke, a young journalist from Chicago, arrives for a summer holiday and we see this truly English family from a new perspective.
Downstairs there is an army of servants maintaining the ancient estate and the lives of their upstairs employer in grand style. A new maid Ivy Thaxton is learning the ropes in the hierarchy of the servant class while chauffeur Jamie Ross tinkers with Rolls Royce engines and dreams of submitting patents of his designs.
The tug and pull of the family dynamics soon expand to a wider field with the outbreak of WWI. We travel to northern France with Captain Wood-Lacy with his battalion and Martin Rilke as a newspaper reporter and witness the chaotic beginnings of the war and the devastating losses at Ypres. At home, the Greville’s neighbor, wealthy businessman Archie Foxe, uses his food empire and knowledge of distribution to aid the war effort becoming even wealthier. As all the young men are enlisted for King and Country, and the young women are employed in the cities, the staff at Abingdon Pryory dwindles down to a skeleton crew. The ladies do their part and daughter Alexandria and housemaid Ivy enlist in the women’s nursing units.
The narrative covers between 1914-1920, and we are witness to more warfare with the soldier Charles Greville and reporter Martin Rilke who witness the massive military blunders and tragic loss of thousands of lives at Gallipoli in Turkey and through the balance of the war. The effect on the home front by those who must bear the devastating personal losses and changes to a way of aristocratic life that will never be again is equally as compelling and heart-wrenching. Even with all the destruction of life, family and country there is hope and romance for a few of the main characters.
Philip Rock is a fabulous writer. His screenwriting skills are wholly apparent on every page. He moves the story swiftly on with a directorial eye by including just enough fact and emotion to keep you glued to the page and engaged at every moment without looking back. Even though there are many characters and plot lines running concurrently I was able to keep up and enjoy all the great historical detail and the amazing characters that he developed. My favorites were Fenton and Martin; both men of honor and integrity who represented outsiders to the Greville family whose objective perspectives were similar to narrator Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
I am happy to say that my melancholy sentiments might have clouded my judgment just a tad while re-reading, but after 30 plus years, it was all that I remembered and more—a book to cherish and read again. Intriguing and intoxicating, The Passing Bells is a future American classic that I encourage anyone interested in historical fiction and first-rate storytelling to read immediately. I am looking forward to the next two books in this trilogy: Circles of Time and A Future Arrived. I hope you will return here to read my next two reviews of the series on March 09 and April 06, 2013.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Passing Bells: Book One of The Greville Family Saga, by Philip Rock
William Morrow (2012)
Trade paperback (544) pages
Cover image courtesy of William Morrow © 2012; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2013, Austenprose.com