Circles of Time: Book Two of the Greville Family Saga, by Philip Rock – A Review

Image of the book cover of Circles of Time, by Philip Rock © William Morrow Books 2013After 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 Germany 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 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 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 was 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
ISBN: 978-0062229335

Book cover image courtesy of © William Morrow Books 2013; text © Laurel Ann Nattress 2013, Austenprose

The Passing Bells: Book One of the Greville Family Saga, by Philip Rock – A Review

The Passing Bells, by  Philip Rock (2012)I love a good mystery. I just didn’t know that I would be so personally engaged in one for over thirty years.

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 expands 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
ISBN: 978-0062229311

© 2013 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose