In this novel of the social and spiritual changes wrought in England by World War I, Phillip Rock combines serious musings on the waste of war with a standard tale of the lives and loves of the British aristocracy.
"The Passing Bells" is a readable, often moving account of war's effect on a generation of men and women who entered it idealistically, only to see it claim a million dead.
Although Rock views World War I as the great divide, it merely accelerated trends already present in the pre-war period. The liberal Lloyd George is on the rise, the motor car has replaced horse-drawn vehicles-money, bold business tactics and technical know-how are eroding the rigid class system upheld by the Greville family, central characters in the book.
Charles Greville, future Earl of Stanmore, is torn between his duty to make a proper match, and his love for the alluring Lydia Foxe, daughter of a wealthy restaurant chain owner whose lower class background and political leanings alarm his family. His Cambridge friends talk of poetry and history, not horseback riding and land. He is far from the self-controlled symbol of well-bred aristocracy his father seems to be.
Charles is one of a large cast of stock, but likable, characters exhibiting the range of background and feelings attributed to the British upper classes. His sister, Alexandra, is a fighty debutante; his friend, Fenton Wood-Lacy, is a genteel, but improverished, captain in the Coldstream Guards. His cousin Martin, visiting from America, is an easygoing journalist, providing counterpoint with his "democratic" perceptions. He falls in love with Ivy Thaxton, a bright, pretty maid in the Greville household, representative of the below-stairs point of view.
The coupling of these characters is a major subject of the book. But while their attractions and doubts are plausible enough, the few love scenes range from coy to embarrassing for what they don't say-male fingers fumbling along fabric, "sensing the warm flesh beneath"-and the cliches of passion are too abundant. It takes the war to give dimension to both the story and the characters.
The war changes all these people, deepens them. They initially perceive it as a kind of poetry. Rupert Brooke, in fact, is a minor character, and excerpts from war poetry. Rupert Brooke, in fact, is a minor character, and excerpts from war poets head each section. Wood-Lacy's brother, Roger, captures their enthusiasm and high ideals: "'War is a form of rebirth,'" he says. "'A rite as old as time ... To go shining to war in defense of little Belgium has all the nobility and purity of Arthurian quests, Rupert said, I think it's more Grecian myself, A sailing for Ilium.'"
The characters learn soon enough that there is nothing glorious about war. They is nothing glorious about war. They die or are wounded, figures falling among thousands of other men. Rock's battle scenes are taut, straightforward, honest. He writes, for example, of the French troops: "On they moved, a thousand or more in three waves. A hundred yards from the trees the first wave began to falter-to stumble and fall-to wither away as some unseen, unheard force scythed through them. They fell over in heaps, and the second wave moved on over their bodies." Again and again, large groups of soldiers die senselessly in campaigns conducted by generals out to touch with their men, using 19th-century tactics against 20th-century weapons.
While the war is devastating, it is, ironically, the vehicle by which the characters mature. Lydia feels that Charles might finally defy his father and marry her. "It was the uniform, being part of something that his father was not part of. In the war." Alexandra and Ivy become nurses; Martin, as a war correspondent, tries to write honestly of the horrors he sees. Wood-Lacy demonstrates his in tegrity and personal, loyalty when he makes public Charles' criticism of the war.
In the end, nearly all the younger characters speak out against the war's mismanagement. They are not pacifists, but they recognize the strategic weaknesses, the carlessness with lives, and they jeopardize their careers to tell a truth that neither public nor politicians will accept. It is an unlikely ending, but an effective one nonetheless. The characters are still idealistic, though the focus of their idealism has changed and, though Britain ostensibly is changed as well, its whole society shaken, it is still a country where people act with courage and honor.