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Review: The Passing Bells, by Phillip Rock
Morrow, 1978. 516 pp. $16

As my regular readers have probably figured out by now, I seldom pick up a family saga. Normally, when I scan the library shelves for historical fiction, I avoid those novels whose jacket illustration shows a beautiful woman standing in front of a magnificent ancestral home. Not that I have anything against such novels; I simply sense that they weren’t written with me in mind.

However, The Passing Bells is about the First World War, my historical specialty and favorite subject as a novelist. I’ve also read that the late Phillip Rock knew his stuff, and that he chose his title from the first line of Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” suggests as much. So I gave the book a shot.

Heaton Hall, Manchester, England (Courtesy PublicDomainPictures.net).

Heaton Hall, Manchester, England (Courtesy Public DomainPictures.net).

There’s a lot to like about The Passing Bells, the first novel of a trilogy. Rock indeed portrays the England of 1914 and after with a keen grasp of history, issues, and, most visibly in this book, social prejudices. The Grevilles of Abingdon Pryory, an earldom created in Tudor times, wear their superiority like their perfectly tailored formal clothes and need not reflect on their values, outlook, way of life, or how they treat others. In other words, they’re absolutely insufferable and likely to remain so.

Rock’s narrative argues that the Greville mindset typifies what holds England back from political, social, or scientific progress. Come the war, this thinking is particularly disastrous, for its aristocratic purveyors see nothing wrong with sending legions of Britons to the ugliest deaths imaginable so long as the enemy pays a commensurate price. The old trope that the men who fought that war were lions led by donkeys is on display here, to potent effect. You see it not only at Gallipoli and the Somme, but among staff officers safely in England or behind the lines in France. Rock’s war is that of self-inflicted wounds, hopeless attacks, and overwhelmed aid stations; the nursing scenes are particularly gripping and true to life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As the novel opens in the late spring of 1914, Martin Rilke, Lady Greville’s journalist nephew from Chicago, visits Abingdon Pryory before setting out on a brief Continental tour, reporter’s notebook in hand. He’s warm, open, loud, and very badly dressed, just what you’d expect an American to be, swimming in a sea of blue-bloods. Martin’s also got more on his mind than the subject that transfixes everyone else: who’s going to marry which spoiled, gorgeous, young woman, and whether the stuffy, old earl will allow the match. (It’s telling, though, that Martin’s eye immediately falls on a pretty housemaid, newly hired and worried about losing her job; apparently, she’s got too much character to transform herself into the liveried robot her station requires.)

Over the coming weeks, war draws closer, and life as the Grevilles know it is about to end. Nobody can say exactly what’s in the air, but in London, Martin senses it:

It appeared to Martin that the streets of the city never emptied. . . .Perhaps it was no more than the unusually hot weather that drove people, mainly young men, from their rooms and set them to wandering in restless bands through the West End. The groups were orderly–excessively polite, as a matter of fact–and the police were not concerned. It was almost Bank Holiday time and a certain anticipatory excitement was normal. And yet, somehow, this behavior could not be explained that easily.

What I don’t like about The Passing Bells is the two-dimensional characterizations. Only a handful of a large cast show any depth, and only two or three can be said to have inner lives. Martin’s a very nice guy, but once he corrects his wardrobe, he’s got no flaws to speak of. The earl’s attitudes ring shudderingly true, but there’s little humanity to him, even when he knows nobody’s watching. His daughter, Alexandra, remains a ravishingly beautiful twit until she becomes a nurse, but that takes half the book; ditto the dashing Coldstream Guards captain who acquires substance (and a conscience) only after he sees combat.

As a consequence, it’s hard to care about these people. But The Passing Bells does depict the time very well.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.