It’s summer, 1914, and the young men and women of Abingdon Pryory are not worrying about war. Instead, they are falling in love, going to dances, riding horses, and more. The Earl of Stanmore is getting ready to host his American wife’s nephew, who is visiting from Chicago. Meanwhile, the new maid, Ivy, is attracting the attention of the up-and-coming chauffeur, who seems to be going places beyond simply driving someone else to and fro.
If this reminds you of Downton Abbey, you’re not the only one. I am quite sure that Julian Fellowes (writer of DA) read The Passing Bells at some point. First published in 1978 and re-released last month, this first in the trilogy of the Greville family and friends is set during the build-up to WWI and the war itself.
It’s really well done, and if you enjoy historical fiction at all, or if you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you’ll love it. The story is divided into 4 “books” (within the novel, I mean) that take us from the summer before the war through Armistice Day, 1920. The gaps between the books allow a story that goes very deep into people’s lives to still move along.
In some ways, the inevitable comparison with Downton Abbey is unfair. I adore DA, but I’m the first to admit it’s basically a really pretty soap-opera, and some of the plot twists are silly. The Passing Bells is a serious book, full of graphic descriptions of war time and clearly showing the effects of the war on rich and poor alike. Author Phillip Rock’s descriptions of war-time London and the hospitals on the front line are full of the kind of details that make it easy to picture, and his wealth of historic fact will teach you about the politics and realities of the time, but his characters and the way they grow and change during the war are what really shines.
Charles Greville is something of a romantic before the war, a scholar, infatuated with the beautiful and scheming Lydia Fox, rich and untitled and whose father’s money and politics don’t endear her to Charles’ father Anthony Greville, Earl of Strathmore. Charles’ sister Alexandra is only interested in dancing and getting engaged, until she is shocked to the core of her being by the horrors of a field hospital on the front lines. Both Charles, who dreams of honour, and Alexandra are irrevocably changed by the war. Their American cousin, Martin Rilke, falls for the pretty new maid, Ivy. He becomes a journalist, and his introspective journals provide some of the best parts of the novel. Meanwhile, the Earl of Strathmore resists change, and his wife bemoans it. Their staff find their lives changing just as rapidly, as Ivy becomes a nurse and the chauffeur, Jaimie Ross, goes to work at the Rolls Royce factory and develops patents, finding his career opening up wide before him thanks to his own intelligence.
The Passing Bells is a great book and a great way to learn more about the absolute devastation of the so-called “war to end all wars.” There’s been a revival of interest in this era recently, and I’m glad because otherwise I would have missed this book. It’s the first in a trilogy, and I’m looking forward to reading the next 2 and following the lives of these characters on into the future. Highly, highly recommended.