Friday, March 15, 2013

The Passing Bells (Book Review)

Title: The Passing Bells
Author: Phillip Rock
Publication Information: Seaview Books, Hardcover, 1978; reprinted by HarperCollins, 2013
Genre: Historical fiction, Book 1 in a trilogy

Plot: Abingdon Pryory is the home of the Greville family, and, like others of his time, the ninth earl, Anthony Greville, married an American heiress to ensure that the estate would survive financially into the 20th century. The marriage was successful, and they have three children: Charles, his heir; William, still at Eton; and Alexandra, a spoiled and shallow teen. Naturally, the Pryory has its fair share of servants, from Ivy, the new and very inexperienced parlor maid, and Jaimie Ross, the chauffeur with an amazing mechanical sense, to stock characters such as the butler and housekeeper. The cast of characters is expanded by the Countess’ nephew from Chicago; a handsome but impoverished military officer, Fenton Wood-Lacy, who needs an heiress of his own; and Lydia Foxe, the Grevilles’ beautiful neighbor whose birth makes her ineligible for her target, Charles. This book opens just before World War I and follows the characters as their leisurely lives end and they face the stresses and sorrows of conflict in England and at war in Europe.
What I liked: Long before Downton Abbey I loved stories about aristocratic English families and those who served them, as well as other historical fiction set in and around that era. Some of my recommendations for Downton fans are available here. I don’t think Rock’s characters are as fully developed as those by authors such as Elswyth Thane, Madeleine Polland, and K. M. Peyton, but I still enjoyed them even if I wasn't as invested in what happened to them.  I particularly appreciated how the American nephew of Lady Greville – at first treated very condescendingly by his English relatives – becomes a valued member of the family. That’s the difference between an English and an American author! Rock, although he lived in England as a child, did not read the memo that American characters are supposed to be loud, crude, and talk about money all the time.

The title comes from Wilfrid Owen, "What passing bells for these who die as cattle..."  For those interested in the poets of this era, I recommend The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry.

What I disliked: Some of the story lines were more convincing than others. I was not convinced that the spoiled daughter of an earl would fall (with little encouragement) irrevocably for a surly married doctor or that he, who seemed so contemptuous of her, would proposition a nurse, clearly gently born, the day he met her. I also hated that Lydia, scorned by Lord Greville because she is a greengrocer’s daughter (albeit a rich one) revealed her lack of class by betraying her husband (plus she seemed as if she would be an important character, then disappeared). Or that the American cousin falls in love with the clueless housemaid, although the point is meant to be that the war and nursing gave her status and broke down the barriers between them.  I didn’t object to these things happening so much as I felt they weren’t convincingly developed. Rock is trying to convey that the divisions between the classes start disappearing because of the war, but I think he does a better job of this in the second book, Circles of Time, much darker but which I also recommend highly, particularly in its depiction of Germany between the wars.
Source: My Goodreads friend Cathy brought this author to my attention and I got the first book from the library. Having read many similar books, I am surprised I had never come across it before. I am glad that HarperCollins has brought the whole trilogy back into print with attractive covers.

More:  Earlier this week I got the first season of Downton from the library for my boss.  Everyone else in my department is is a huge fan (two women and two men) and I think he caught our enthusiam walking to lunch every Monday.  I hope he and his wife enjoy it!

1 comment:

Deb said...

Interesting life story for Rock at link above.