After re-discovering The Passing Bells – after a thirty-year estrangement – I was thrilled to learn there were two more books in the Greville Family Saga. Originally published between 1978 – 1986, this welcome reissue of the trilogy by William Morrow Books is just in time for fans of the popular television series Downton Abbey to plunge back into the era between the wars and cocoon themselves in history, drama, and romance.
Set in England during 1921 – 1923, Circles of Time opens two years after the end of the Great War and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles by the German and the Allied Powers. The Greville family of Abingdon Pryory, like so many in Britain (and the world), have suffered five years of a devastating loss during the war and are attempting to rebound. How each of the characters deals with their pain and the future is what compels this story forward and captivates our hearts.
The fighting may be over, but the effect of the war continues for many. Patriarch Lord Anthony Greville, 9th earl of Stanmore, a staunch traditionalist chooses to turn back time and restore his ancestral estate back to pre-war elegance before it was abused as an officer’s rehabilitation hospital. Hannah, his American wife, is not only uneasy with the extravagance of living in a huge grand manor house again but riddled with guilt by the money used for its refurbishment from her trust fund – profits earned during the war from investments in munitions plants in the US. Their three children are also suffering from the fallout of the war. Twenty-five-year-old daughter Alexandra, a beautiful socialite turned war-time nurse in France, has returned from Canada with her infant son. Now a widow, her father will never forgive her for the indiscretion of having an affair with a married man, becoming pregnant, and marrying a week after he obtained a divorce. Charles, their eldest son, and heir to the estate, gallantly served in the war and is a severely shell-shocked amnesiac residing in a mental hospital in Wales. William, recuperating from a gunshot wound to his knee inflicted by his brother is supposedly studying for the bar but is actually living a dissipated life of heavy drink, flappers and jazz clubs in London.
Friends and relatives of the family are challenged too. The Greville’s American cousin Martin Rilke is still grieving the loss of his wife Ivy who died in Flanders serving as a nurse in a medical unit. Awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his truthful account of his Cousin Charles Greville’s court-martial, he has turned his war-time experience into a tell-all book, A Killing Ground, a savage expose on the war that has garnered praise and a libel lawsuit by an angry British general. Fellow journalist Jacob Gold has been working for the United Nations reporting on hunger in the war-torn nations, and their mutual friend Lieutenant Colonel Fenton Wood-Lacy faces the painful consequence of not burying the facts of Charles Greville’s breakdown by being blacklisted by the army and sent to a bleak colonial outpost in Mesopotamia without his family.
There is a bit of romance too. Lady Hannah uses her matchmaking skills and researches eligible bachelors again for her daughter. Her top choice is Noel Edward Allenby Rothwell, Esq. – a London financier from a fine family who checks off all of the requirements for the perfect son-in-law for Lord and Lady Stanmore. Alex knows she is damaged goods and that her mother’s choice will make everyone happy – but her. She much prefers Jamie Ross, a man from her past who had been her father’s chauffeur/mechanic before the war. He has gone on to become an acclaimed aeroplane designer and owner of a growing company in San Diego, California. He is in England again on extended business at the local plane manufacturer near the Pryory, and his easy manners and engaging spirit are far more appealing than a life with Noel which seems predestined for disaster.
The grounding force of the novel is my favorite character Martin Rilke who is a catalyst for many events. Even though the narrative is told through many different viewpoints, as a journalist he is always in the thick of the social unrest and political changes sweeping Britain and Europe. Through his character and his interactions, we see an array of consequences of the Great War and how it changed life so dramatically for a large estate like Abingdon Pryory, the working class who served there, the nation and the world.
Philip Rock skillfully takes us into the decadence of London Jazz clubs, the changing rural life of a country village, the growth of industrialization, social conflicts with the rise of Fascism, Communism and National Socialism, and the crippling reparations imposed by the Allied Powers on Germany and Austria that affect the world economy – all impacting the lives of this circle of friends and family that are connected to Abingdon Pryory. As a screenwriter turned novelist, Rock knows exactly how to shape the narrative to his will with brevity and emotion. I think he explains it best himself through a conversation that Martin Rilke has with his journalist friend Joe regarding the style of writing his own book: “Oh, cool, crisp prose. Nothing overwrought. Perfect use of understatement and irony. About as clean as a left jab to the jaw.” p 22.
After thoroughly enjoying The Passing Bells, I did not think it would be possible to surpass my awe and enjoyment, but Circles of Time matches my expectations with its historical drama excelling with intimate characterization. The battlefields of France and all the horrible devastation of WWI were very gripping and intriguing, but as we move with the characters into the rebuilding of the nation and their lives, it becomes more personal, positive and uplifting. If you love beautifully written historical drama, you won’t be disappointed.
5 out of 5 Stars
Circles of Time: Book Two of the Greville Family Saga, by Philip Rock
William Morrow Boos (2013)
Trade paperback (448) pages
- Read my introduction to The Greville Family Saga
- Read my review of The Passing Bells
- Visit the TLC Book Tour of the series
Book cover image courtesy of © William Morrow Books 2013; text © Laurel Ann Nattress 2013, Austenprose