Before There Was Downton Abbey...

The Passing Bells by Phillip Rock

Release Date: December 2012 (Originally January 1978)
Publisher: HarperCollins | William Morrow
Pages: 544 pages
Series: Greville Family Saga #1
Source & Format: Bought; Paperback
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
The guns of August are rumbling throughout Europe in the summer of 1914, but war has not yet touched Abingdon Pryory. Here, at the grand home of the Greville family, the parties, dances, and romances play on. Alexandra Greville embarks on her debutante season while her brother Charles remains hopelessly in love with the beautiful, untitled Lydia Foxe, knowing that his father, the Earl of Stanmore, will never approve of the match. Downstairs the new servant, Ivy, struggles to adjust to the routines of the well-oiled household staff, as the arrival of American cousin Martin Rilke, a Chicago newspaperman, causes a stir.

But, ultimately, the Great War will not be denied, as what begins for the high-bred Grevilles as a glorious adventure soon takes its toll - shattering the household's tranquility, crumbling class barriers, and bringing its myriad horrors home.

Thoughts on The Passing Bells
Billed as the perfect series for fans of Downton Abbey, I was absolutely intrigued by the cover when I first saw this book on the shelves at Target. I purchased it soon after, but I let time go by without reading it. It kept making my list of books to read soon, but I obviously needed the Summer Series Challenge to finally get into gear and start reading this book.

At 544 pages, this is no small read. However, I was shocked once I started reading it at how quickly it flew by. First published in 1978, The Passing Bells was recently reissued by William Morrow and I'm assuming it's in no small part due to Downton Abbey craze.

The Passing Bells follows the Grevilles, an aristocratic English family, during World War I. There is definitely an upstairs/downstairs aspect to this book as it follows not only the central family, but also the servants at Abingdon Pryory and several other key people in the lives of the Greville family members.

Anthony Greville, Earl of Stanmore, and Hanna Rilke Greville, Countess of Stanmore, are the parents of three bright and quickly maturing children: Charles, Alexandra and William. The book also introduces the reader to a large and varied cast of characters. Hanna's American nephew, Martin Rilke, plays a crucial role throughout the book and often becomes a person whose path intersects with all the other characters. As an outsider, he offers valuable perspective on the customs and cares of the English people (and the wealthy in particular).

The novel covers 1914 - 1920, and it flits around between all the characters' lives during that time period. With such an enormous cast, it's a huge task to fulfill! Surprisingly, I was able to keep up once I got acquainted with everyone and never felt confused. The only thing that I disliked with having so many characters is that there isn't a lot of character development because no one person receives enough time, attention or page space to become really fleshed out. The Passing Bells is definitely a book that focuses on action and events, which made the pacing really quick.

While I think the Downton Abbey comparison is fitting, I don't think the book will appeal to every Downton Abbey fan. The Passing Bells does mirror the ensemble cast aspect of the show, but it digs much deeper into the grittier issues of life during wartime. The show is ultimately about entertainment, and it definitely glossed over many aspects of World War I that are more fully fleshed out in Rock's novel. It's a book that is absolutely focused on the war - the event that has served as the catalyst for almost everything that takes place on the book's pages.

There are many female characters, but men take the lead in this book. I was surprised by the fact that the men are really the focal point of this novel - the females are mostly introduced in relation to them rather than having independent story lines of their own (with the exception of Alexandra). I don't think it detracted from my enjoyment of the book, but I did find it surprising that it is almost exclusively focused on the male experience. The cover seems very feminine to me, but the best read as something very masculine (particularly with the focus on men and their experiences with war and politics).

The Passing Bells was rich with historical detail, and Rock definitely knows how to set a scene. There were numerous instances where I felt as though I could clearly picture the horror, devastation and futility of what was taking place. I'd never realized just how mismanaged certain aspects of World War I were, and it was fascinating to take a step back in time with these characters on that journey.

If you're looking for a historical fiction book that reads like a movie, I think you'll enjoy The Passing Bells. The wide range of characters made for an exciting and intriguing read, even if I did feel that they weren't fully developed due to sheer number of moving parts in this story. With fascinating historical detail and fast-paced action scenes, I would definitely recommend The Passing Bells to fans of historical fiction. It may not be the perfect fit for every Downton Abbey fan, but I certainly think the comparison is deserved. It's the first in a series, but it stands nicely on its own for those who aren't ready to commit to more time spent with these books. All in all, I very much enjoyed this read!


  1. Gosh, this cover is absolutely stunning and it is interesting given you say that the book is so man-focused in the storylines. I've never seen Downton Abbey (I know, I know) but since reading Letters From Skye (I'm obsessed with that book) I loved/got a feel for the wartime experience a teensy bit. I think I might consider revisiting this series at some point in my jaunt into historical fiction but I'm a little bit concerned about it being British because I've never done well with Brit-speak (I may have made that word up just now). These would probably have to be library loans for me for that reason (also the reason I've not watched D Abbey).

    I'm so glad you liked this one. The new covers are SO pretty.

    1. Oh gosh I love this cover too! Isn't it surprising that it's so man-focused? I found that really interesting - different from a lot of historical fiction I've read. WOMAN! Watch Downton Abbey. Yay for Letters From Skye obsession! <3

      The author of this one is American (I think) so it never felt too Brit-speak :) But I also love the British peoples so I may not have noticed until if it ventured into that direction. But definitely library them!

  2. I've seen this before, and I think it sounds really good! I'm not really crazy about Downton Abbey, but I enjoyed it and I think a bookish version would be fun. (Also kind of like that it's 500 pages, because long books are almost always my opinion, haha.)

    And in general, I kind of feel like WWI fiction is a bit more difficult to find, especially compared to WWII/Holocaust fiction, so it's always nice to read about a different era.

    1. I think it's different enough from Downton Abbey that you'd still enjoy it. I love long books, too! I put off reading them, but I always end up loving them even more. I love having all those extra pages to spend time with the characters.

      I agree on WWI fiction being harder to find! I liked that this one was so focused on the war because I haven't read much about this time period. I've certainly found lots more WWII fiction! Hope you like this one if you get around to reading it!

  3. I feel like I might have issues with the fact that it's such a large cast of characters, as I tend to prefer characters fully fleshed out. However, I do like the era it's set in and the fact that it seems to really draw on that to tell most of the story. Even though it appears like this one might be a lengthy read, I feel like I would probably like it for its atmospherics and story.

    1. I prefer in-depths characters, too, but this was nice for a little change. I'm definitely a fan of character development, but I still liked that this one was something different. I love this era, so that added to my enjoyment too :)

  4. I loved this series so so much. In fact, I finished all three books in one weekend. I absolutely loved the characters and the interplay between them. Glad you enjoyed!

    1. It took me a little longer to get into the first one, but once I did... Watch out! There was no turning back :) Glad you really loved these too!


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