Here’s a book I’ve had on my shelves for thirty years. It’s survived purge after purge because I remembered enjoying it so much the first time I read it. But it wasn’t until I saw that Phillip Rock’s The Passing Bells had been reprinted (along with the other two volumes of his trilogy) that I thought to re-read it.
Of course it’s being marketed with comparisons to Downton Abbey and there are similarities. The action begins in an earl’s country house not long before World War I. Servants include an uppity chauffeur and a beautiful housemaid called Ivy. The countess is a former American heiress whose money has allowed the Earl of Stanmore to persist in his aristocratic distaste for modern values and practices.
But The Passing Bells doesn’t stay focused on the country estate. It follows some of its characters across the English Channel right into the trenches and the hospital tents and the blasted woods of the battlefields. Through the eyes of the women who stay home, we see the new freedoms for the young and the anguish for the bereaved mothers, as well as some sexual shenanigans (probably quite racy for 1978) among the rich and powerful.
Nothing new here, really; The Passing Bells is pleasant, conventional story-telling. If you’ve read a substantial amount of World War I material, you’ll be able to tick the boxes: the country hospital that treats shell shock, the ladies turning to spiritualism, the aristocratic girl shocked by her nursing experience, the cups of tea in the dank trenches, the emotional dislocation felt by returning veterans. But I think The Passing Bells and its two sequels were among the first popular novels to take a panoramic look at the World War years in English society. Phillip Rock was English, but made his living in Los Angeles for years, writing fiction and novelizations of film scripts. So The Passing Bells doesn’t trespass on the Pat Barker territory of emotional and mental crisis. This is respectable middle-brow entertainment, a category of reading that’s shifted a lot in thirty years. Ken Follett’s enormous, bombastic Fall of Giants would be today’s version of the same material, I suspect. At half its length, The Passing Bells provides twice the fun.