A historical saga centered around a household on an English estate in the months leading up to WWI and the difficult years of the war itself, when no member of the household above or below stairs goes unaffected. 1978.
I actually began reading The Passing Bells sometime in November, but at the time I was also watching the latest “Downton Abbey” episodes (on the UK airing schedule). Considering the chronological and thematic overlap of these two, it was just…too much. I feared England circa 1914 would grow to feel more like my life than, you know, my actual life. So, I put down The Passing Bells, but noted that it would certainly be a fantastic read, when the time became right to read it.
This is a big book-—roughly 530 pages. There’s an equally large cast of characters, and they’re pretty much all present from the get-go. The book opens with various glimpses into life on an English estate, Abingdon Pryory, the family seat of the Grevilles. There’s his lordship, the prototype of the English gentleman: politically conservative and morally reserved, happy in his habits of horseback riding and monitoring his family, especially his sons. There’s his wife, too, an American whose presence reflects that trend in the early 20th century where American heiresses offered their money in exchange for an English title.
In these months prior to the outbreak of war, the Greville parents play a modest role in the novel’s early action. After that, however, they sort of disappear to the background…And now, it’s their children, extended family, family friends, and servants who take center stage.
There’s Charles Greville, heir to the title, who shows no interest in any occupation (which is acceptable, because he’ll inherit), but does seem to be moping over his father’s objections to the woman he wants to marry. The young woman in question is not of their class, but is the only child of a very successful businessman. We are unsure, at this point in the story, whether the young woman’s interest in Charles is because she really loves him, or just because she loves the idea of one day being Lady Greville.
It gets more complicated when we see that someone else is in love with her. (Why? Um, she’s, like, really beautiful. And rich. That’s enough, right?) The other man in love with her is a family friend, Fenton Wood-Lacy, a captain in a fashionable regiment whose lifestyle exceeds his income. Marry, and preferably someone with money, Lord Greville advises him. Fenton proposes to this rich, beautiful girl, but his offer isn’t even considered. (Good, I was thinking! I liked Fenton.)
Fenton has a brother who is close buddies with the middle Greville son. These two young men run in a more intellectual, literary circle, but the point is that all of the young men in this story are friends and keep bumping into each other.
The youngest Greville “boy” is still in school at Eton. There’s also a daughter, Alexandra, who at the novel’s opening is preparing to make her debut in society, dreaming of being swept away by a handsome young man—-of her own class, obviously. The Greville family is also joined by Martin Rilke, Lady Greville’s nephew fresh off the boat from Chicago. He’s a journalist, looking to further himself as a writer, and as he travels around England he begins keeping a journal and submitting articles on his observations of the English.
Then there’s the staff at Abingdon Pryory. There’s Ross, the chauffeur who is confident he can improve upon the mechanics of the cars he drives. Also new to the household is Ivy Thaxton (great name!), a Suffolk girl who’s trying to get the hang of being a maid.
Whew! That’s quite an introduction. What can I say? It’s a big cast.
What I loved about this book was that although I was definitely rooting for people to live and get married and all that, I never had any idea what would happen next. When the war breaks out, all of the men (who, really, are the main crux of the novel) go off to fight in France. At first, they’re optimistic. However, as the history books tell us, old battle tactics quickly prove deadly when pitted against new technologies. The resulting carnage is witnessed through the alternating stories of the characters, including, in time, the young women, who join up as nurses.
When I sensed that the descriptions of battalions, artillery, trenches, and so forth was not going to stop any time soon, I felt slightly deceived. It was my own fault, I suppose, for not realizing that the bulk of the novel takes place during wartime. But by page 200, already invested in the characters and impressed by the writing, I just sighed and trudged ahead…
And that’s when the truly miraculous happened: suddenly, I got it. The military lingo, which instinctively makes my eyes glass over, suddenly was worth understanding. In history classes, I always failed to see the point of all these men shooting at each other. The Passing Bells minimally explore the politics behind the war, but it does make the necessity for survival very realistic.
In all, this wasn’t the book I was expecting—-and it’s definitely not the “positive” kind of story I like reviewing here at ALB—-but it is definitely worth the time. Even if, like me, you’re not into the war stuff, The Passing Bells still has plenty to offer. For one, there are the characters, who are fully-realized people, rather than merely “good” or “bad” caricatures. Then there’s their journeys, together and apart, and the sheer likelihood that they will survive being in the thick of it all.
Above all else, I was moved by the story’s realism. There are two more books in the series, and I will probably read them for one reason: I formed a deep attachment to the characters. When not reading about them, they were still in my thoughts. I loved that by the end of the book, they were altered from how they’d been at the beginning. To me, this transformation, and the corresponding transformation of the society in which they lived, was what made this a truly meaningful read.