The wind, tugging at the windows, rattling them in their frames, howled and shrieked under the eaves, reminding him of the demented sound of shells. He pressed his face into the soft hollow between her breasts as she clasped him tightly, as if to shield him on this first day of the year from all the days to follow.
(from The Passing Bells, page 390)
The Passing Bells, first published in 1978, is the first in a trilogy by the late Phillip Rock that follows the Greville family from 1914 into the 1930s. This first installment, which spans the years 1914 to 1920, is a pretty ambitious undertaking, following several people connected to one family as their lives are upended by the Great War. But Rock enables readers to get to know and understand the inner workings of each of his characters over the course of 516 pages, and when I turned the last page, I was glad I didn’t have to say goodbye to them all just yet.
In the summer of 1914, the Grevilles are living a carefree life at Abingdon Priory, preparing for Alexandra’s debutante season in London. Alexandra is excited about the teas and dances, the dresses, and the prospect of choosing a husband from her mother Hanna’s carefully compiled list of eligible bachelors. Her father, Anthony, the Earl of Stanmore, lives for his horses and waits for the day when his heir, Charles, realizes he cannot marry Lydia Foxe, a childhood friend from an untitled family whose money comes from a string of tea shops. Lydia has one eye on Charles and all he will inherit and the other eye on Fenton Wood-Lacy, the son of a knighted architect and a close friend of the Grevilles who must marry for money to maintain his upscale lifestyle as an officer in the Coldstream Guards. The Grevilles’ lives are momentarily disrupted by the arrival of Martin Rilke, Hanna’s nephew from Chicago, a journalist with plans to tour Europe on his meager savings and work on his novel, and he’s fascinated by one of the Grevilles’ maids, Ivy Thaxton, who fumbles at her new job but appears destined for more than a life of service.
When World War I breaks out, there is this sense of excitement, and everyone expects the war to be over in a matter of months. The Grevilles don’t realize the war marks the beginning of the end of their way of life. Charles, Fenton, and Fenton’s brother, Roger, go off to war; Alexandra, in her stunning, tailored uniforms, joins the Voluntary Aid Detachment; Martin writes from the front lines; and Ivy and most of the other servants at Abingdon Priory leave to join the war effort. Lord Stanmore watches his estate fall into disrepair without the order and organization of his servants, which is symbolic of the weakening of the British social class structure brought about by the war. The war empowered women, as evidenced by Lydia’s political scheming and Alexandra’s wartime romance, and it forever changed the idealistic soldiers who went into the trenches as exuberant boys and, if they were lucky to survive, emerged as old men who had seen too much of the dark side of human nature.
Rock accomplished so much in The Passing Bells. The first 100 pages or so introduces all the characters and the ways in which they are connected, and I thought the novel was going to be heavy on the romance. But when war breaks out, the book takes on a different tone, and the characters start moving in different directions. Rock ultimately covers the war on many fronts. He follows the male characters into the trenches and shows how hundreds of thousands of men died because of politics and bad decisions made by high-ranking officials who were out of touch with what was happening on the battlefield. He shows how young journalists committed to telling the truth as it happened where thwarted at every turn. But most of all, Rock shows how the war changed everyone, from women who went from caring only about clothes and dancing to caring for men who had their faces blown off and men who went from caring about social status and reputation to caring only about disseminating the truth.
The Passing Bells is truly an epic novel of the “war to end all wars” that shows how the war ushered in change on all levels. Rock’s characters were so tenderly crafted and so wonderfully complex that I could understand them all even when I didn’t like them. Their relationships and entanglements felt true to the chaos of the time, and the battle scenes had just the right amount of description to emphasize the horror and the confusion without going overboard on the violence or the military maneuvering. I was worried about the novel being long and plodding, but I breezed through it and can’t wait to follow the characters through the next two books.
Disclosure: I received The Passing Bells from William Morrow for review.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.