Our Passing Bells Read Along discussions officially begin today! And it's about time as I'm fresh off tonight's Downton Abbey premiere and need something else to discuss until next Sunday night! It's been great to see some of your excitement on Twitter (#passingbells) already. I hope that everyone enjoyed reading the first book in the series as much as I did - now I just wish there was a theatrical adaptation of it in the works. For those arriving here for the first time who've yet to read The Passing Bells, let this officially stand as a spoiler alert - don't read beyond the italicized type if you don't want to learn essential plot points. Ok, let's begin!
The Passing Bells
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 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 tranquillity, crumbling class barriers, and bringing its myriad horrors home.
Indeed, as Nancy Pearl posted on her Facebook page during the holidays: "Jonesing for Downton Abbey? Meet the Grevilles of Abingon Pryory in Philip Rock's Passing Bells, 1st of a trilogy. Check it out."
Questions for discussion - post your answers in the comments section - if you're a blogger and you've posted a review, include that link with your answers.
1. I know that many of us have read the Maisie Dobbs and Bess Crawford series, which are also set during WWI. What I really liked about The Passing Bells was that we get more of what's going on in the war itself - I learned a lot that I didn't know about the politics and the battles and felt I got a fuller picture than before. If you've read either of those series, or just from watching Downton Abbey or reading other books set in this time period, how did The Passing Bells compare for you? (I loved seeing things I'd learned in other books - the white feathers from Birds of a Feather and the scene where war is declared echoed a similar scene in Betsy and the Great World).
2. I was struck again at how the war changes the social order in Britain - in that it allows people like Ivy Thaxton and her father, Jamie Ross and even Alexandra Greville to do things they would never have been allowed to do in the places they held prior to the war. Ivy is ushered into a world she would only have been able to look at from the outside and her father's business thrives; Ross is in a position to tell his former master's son what to do; and Alexandra finds a life that is certainly full of more purpose (if also more pain) than the one she's planning at the beginning of the novel. What did you think of all these role reversals and changes?
3. Martin Rilke's diary entries are embedded throughout the novel - much as he is embedded as our "American eye" into the story - first he's embedded into the British aristocracy, then the world of journalism and finally the the war itself. Why do you think Phillip Rock chose to include his diaries in this way?
4. The novel is full of literary allusions, to such an extent that the poet Rupert Brooke is included as a character himself. Why do you think Rock chose to include these allusions and Brooke?
5. What did you think of Lydia Foxe and Alexandra Greville at the beginning of the novel and how did your feelings toward them change by the end?
6. Which leads me to my next question - my feelings about many characters changed throughout the novel: Charles, Fenton, Jacob, Lydia, Alexandra. Where there any characters about whom you felt the same at the end as you did at the beginning?
7. In the biography in the PS section at the back of the book, Rock's inspiration for the book is discussed - from his youth spent in England up until the Blitz and standing still with his father on Armistice Day. The Passing Bells was published in 1978 while Rock was living in the States and the Vietnam War had just ended three years prior - probably during the time he was writing the book. Do you think that the effects of that war - and what we as a country learned about what happens to men in battle, could have influenced the novel, specifically how Charles and Jacob are affected and change?
8. When we read the Maisie Dobbs and Bess Crawford series together I asked if there was a new word or phrase that you learned in each book. There were many words that were new to me here. I knew that "Blighty" was a term for England, but not that it could also refer to a self-inflicted wound that would, in turn, send a soldier back to Blighty. What word or phrase was new to you?
I can't wait to read all of your answers, and please add any thoughts or observations I may not have covered here.
Join us for our discussion of the next book in the trilogy, Circles of Time, on Monday, February 4th. Also - the first 5 people to comment on this post will win a free copy of that book to read for the discussion!