The Passing Bells (Book Review)

Title: The Passing Bells
Author: Phillip Rock
Publication Information: Seaview Books, Hardcover, 1978; reprinted by HarperCollins, 2013
Genre: Historical fiction, Book 1 in a trilogy

Plot: Abingdon Pryory is the home of the Greville family, and, like others of his time, the ninth earl, Anthony Greville, married an American heiress to ensure that the estate would survive financially into the 20th century. The marriage was successful, and they have three children: Charles, his heir; William, still at Eton; and Alexandra, a spoiled and shallow teen. Naturally, the Pryory has its fair share of servants, from Ivy, the new and very inexperienced parlor maid, and Jaimie Ross, the chauffeur with an amazing mechanical sense, to stock characters such as the butler and housekeeper. The cast of characters is expanded by the Countess’ nephew from Chicago; a handsome but impoverished military officer, Fenton Wood-Lacy, who needs an heiress of his own; and Lydia Foxe, the Grevilles’ beautiful neighbor whose birth makes her ineligible for her target, Charles. This book opens just before World War I and follows the characters as their leisurely lives end and they face the stresses and sorrows of conflict in England and at war in Europe.

What I liked: Long before Downton Abbey I loved stories about aristocratic English families and those who served them, as well as other historical fiction set in and around that era. Some of my recommendations for Downton fans are available here. I don’t think Rock’s characters are as fully developed as those by authors such as Elswyth Thane, Madeleine Polland, and K. M. Peyton, but I still enjoyed them even if I wasn’t as invested in what happened to them.  I particularly appreciated how the American nephew of Lady Greville – at first treated very condescendingly by his English relatives – becomes a valued member of the family. That’s the difference between an English and an American author! Rock, although he lived in England as a child, did not read the memo that American characters are supposed to be loud, crude, and talk about money all the time.

The title comes from Wilfrid Owen, “What passing bells for these who die as cattle…”  For those interested in the poets of this era, I recommend The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry.

What I disliked: Some of the story lines were more convincing than others. I was not convinced that the spoiled daughter of an earl would fall (with little encouragement) irrevocably for a surly married doctor or that he, who seemed so contemptuous of her, would proposition a nurse, clearly gently born, the day he met her. I also hated that Lydia, scorned by Lord Greville because she is a greengrocer’s daughter (albeit a rich one) revealed her lack of class by betraying her husband (plus she seemed as if she would be an important character, then disappeared). Or that the American cousin falls in love with the clueless housemaid, although the point is meant to be that the war and nursing gave her status and broke down the barriers between them.  I didn’t object to these things happening so much as I felt they weren’t convincingly developed. Rock is trying to convey that the divisions between the classes start disappearing because of the war, but I think he does a better job of this in the second book, Circles of Time, much darker but which I also recommend highly, particularly in its depiction of Germany between the wars.
Source: My Goodreads friend Cathy brought this author to my attention and I got the first book from the library. Having read many similar books, I am surprised I had never come across it before. I am glad that HarperCollins has brought the whole trilogy back into print with attractive covers.
More:  Earlier this week I got the first season of Downton from the library for my boss.  Everyone else in my department is is a huge fan (two women and two men) and I think he caught our enthusiam walking to lunch every Monday.  I hope he and his wife enjoy it!

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Swoon (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them
Author: Betsy Prioleau
Publication Information: Hardcover, 2013, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., isbn 9780393068375
Genre: Nonfiction/Relationships/Cultural History

Description: Swoon is a glittering pageant of charismatic ladies’ men from Casanova to Lord Byron to Albert Camus to Ashton Kutcher. It challenges every preconceived idea about great lovers and answers one of history’s most vexing questions: What do women want?

Contrary to popular myth and dogma, the men who consistently beguile women belie the familiar stereotypes: satanic rake, alpha stud, slick player, Mr. Nice, or big-money mogul. As Prioleau, the author of Seductress, points out in this surprising, insightful study, legendary ladies’ men are a different, complex special altogether, often without looks or money. They fit no known template and possess a cache of powerful exotic secrets.

With wit and erudition, Prioleau cuts through the cultural lore and reveals who these master lovers really are and the arts they practice to enswoon women. What she discovers is revolutionary. Using evidence from science, popular culture, fiction, anthropology, and history, and from interviews with colorful real-world lady-killers, Prioleau finds that great seducers share a constellation of unusual traits.

While these men run the gamut, they radiate joie de vivre, intensity and sex appeal; above all, they adore women. They listen, praise, amuse, and delight, and they know their way around the bedroom. And they’ve finessed the hardest part: locking in and revving desire. Women never tire of these fascinators and often, like Casanova’s conquests, remain besotted for life. [from the flap copy]

What I liked: As a former romance editor, I was immediately intrigued when I heard about this book. I have always been a firm opponent of the arrogant hero who is obnoxious and condescending to the heroine for the whole book, yet she is expected to (and does) fall into his arms at the end, so was eager to hear more about men who use charm and appreciation of women who conquer and win hearts. I particularly enjoyed the range of subjects the author investigates from Gershwin (who “lacked the requisite matinee-idol looks” but charmed through ebullience and a special joy in life), Robert Louis Stevenson (who knew he was beloved by many women, I had a vision of him as a sort of Dungeons and Dragons geek), and David Niven (the British actor, who was a chronic womanizer described as “delicious as French pastry” – although I never saw him in his prime, I have no trouble believing this), and much more.

She describes author Kingsley Amis, who charmed everyone in sight during a teaching stint at Princeton with his British accent and sense of the ridiculous (and later married Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose Cazalet Chronicles will appeal to Downton Abbey enthusiasts).

Fans of modern romances will enjoy the references to Patricia Gaffney (a friend from my Topaz days), Susan Elizabeth Phillips (a friend from my Avon days), Lisa Kleypas, Jennifer Cruisie, Jane Green, and Megan Chance, among others.

The author’s credentials are impressive: a Ph.D. in Literature from Duke, one of my alma maters, and is published by Norton, which in and of itself, is a great recommendation.

Prioleau addresses the issue of the cold, professional seducer, arguing that “[a]n authentic woman-charmer doesn’t despise his conquests or seek their destruction.” Of course, that type does exist – maybe he requires another book!

What I disliked: I found the organization of the book a little confusing which made it fun to read as a browse but meant I relied on the index when looking for a specific topic. This did not detract from my enjoyment, however.

Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours, which gave me a copy to give away.  Please leave a comment if you would like it.   Here are links to other stops on the tour.
Monday, March 4th: Scandalous Women (this is one of my favorite blogs)
Tuesday, March 5th: Enchanted by Josephine

Thursday, March 7th: A Bookish Affair
Monday, March 11th: The Blog of Litwits
Tuesday, March 12th: In the Hammock
Thursday, March 14th: Jenny Loves to Read
Friday, March 15th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Monday, March 18th: Dolce Bellezza
Tuesday, March 19th: Book Addict Katie
Wednesday, March 20th: Stiletto Storytime
Thursday, March 21st: Unabridged Chick
Friday, March 22nd: Books a la Mode – author guest post
Monday, March 25th: Man of La Book
Tuesday, March 26th: Literally Jen
Wednesday, March 27th: Peppermint Ph.D.
Thursday, March 28th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf
Monday, April 1st: A Chick Who Reads
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The Heritage (Book Review)

Title: The Heritage
Author: Frances Parkinson Keyes (pronounced to rhyme with size)
Publication Information: Hardcover, McGraw-Hill, 1968
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: 1882. Peter Bradford, an indulged member of a prominent Irish-American Boston family, is traveling to Ireland to visit his great-uncle, James O’Toole, the Earl of Cloneen, whose heir he is. On the train en route, he meets a beautiful young woman, falls instantly in love, and they spend the night together. Desperate attempts to find her the next morning are unsuccessful. When Peter reaches Ireland, he has two shocks: his uncle has just died, and his uncle’s much-younger widow is Anne, the woman with whom he just spent the night. Deeply ashamed of her infidelity, Anne will barely speak to Peter, but there is an added complication: if she is pregnant with a son, their child will displace his own father as the new earl!

What I liked: I remembered this book while watching Downton Abbey because of the issue about the heir, and wanted to reread it right away. Keyes’ books always involve honor, and how people feel and react to it in different ways. Here, Anne cannot forgive herself for having betrayed her elderly husband for a night of passion with a handsome young man, while Peter persuades himself that his uncle would have understood and approved of Peter’s passion for Anne because he wants a permanent relationship, not a one night fling. Peter never even considers betraying Anne’s secret even if he is dispossessed by his own child but it’s an enormous thing to keep from family, friends and the local priest . . .
An Irish country estate is an unusual locale for Keyes, most of whose books are set in New England or New Orleans. In one of the long forwards she is known for, she describes how she got the idea for this book. What she does not mention is that although she grew up as Protestant in New England she converted to Catholicism in 1939 (I bet it is no coincidence that she waited until her husband died – it is not the kind of thing Protestants of her background did). Born in 1885, Keyes was just a few years older than Maud Hart Lovelace but their worlds were very different. Keyes’ husband served as Governor of New Hampshire and later spent 18 years in the U.S. Senate. As a Washington hostess, she knew Eleanor Roosevelt and all the political luminaries of that era.

What I disliked: Peter is a well-intentioned but a condescending and sanctimonious character, and his attitude toward Anne from the first is annoying: “he could not let the night go by without making an attempt, however, rash to possess this unknown girl” . . . he wanted “to prove he could more than meet her challenge, that he could be her master, as well as her mate.” Later, although he keeps saying he is in love with her, she is unpleasant and distant, and it is hard to believe he really knows her at all or that they have anything in common. And while I have enjoyed Keyes for years, her style is very mannered and unconvincing – no one talks in paragraphs that go on for pages. I think her appeal is the vivid descriptions and memorable characters.

Source: My mother used to own a Fawcett paperback but I wound up getting this from the library. Some libraries have given away all of Keyes’ books which is a shame.

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Top Ten Most Romantic Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe Moments

You may not be surprised to hear I own four copies of Anne of Green Gables. One, my original copy and favorite, is missing – I think it is a mustard-colored Grosset & Dunlap paperback with Anne past her ugly duckling phase, in a sort of photographic cover, wearing an organdy white dress and with smooth auburn tresses.  Does anyone know that one?  I gave away an ugly Scholastic paperback and an unattractive (albeit useful) anthology of books 1-3 or I would have six.

The brilliant Stephanie Lucianovic of the Grub Report recently listed what she considered Top Ten Most Romantic Betsy Ray-Joe Willard Moments, and someone asserted that it would be hard to come up with a similar list for Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe. I disagree:

Anne of Green Gables

1. The Slate Incident and Apology

Gilbert was a “tall boy with curly brown hair, roguish hazel eyes and a mouth twisted into a teasing smile.” He notices Anne right away and winks at her. That same day she is staring out the window when he tries to get her attention by grabbing her braid and calling her, “Carrots!” As everyone knows, she hits him over the head with her slate but is more upset by the wretched teacher humiliating her before the class (and spelling her name without an E) multiple times that day. Gilbert apologizes immediately but Anne refuses to speak to him or forgive him.

2. Bingen on the Rhine

Both Lucy Maud Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder do a great job at conveying the events that entertained their heroines. When Diana Barry invites Anne to attend an Avonlea Debating Club concert, she is thrilled at the invitation to spend the night in the Barrys’ spare-room. The reader enjoys Anne’s appreciation of the entire evening but thrills (as does Diana) to Gilbert’s recitation from Bingen on the Rhine, “There’s another, not a sister…”

3. The Lily Maid Incident

Also in AOGG, Anne and her friends are acting out Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and Anne, as Elaine, the Lily Maid, floats down the pond in a leaky boat and is rescued by Gilbert. Gilbert, two years older than Anne and more mature, takes advantage of her being forced to speak to him and apologizes again for his conduct from two years earlier: “[L]ook here. Can’t we be good friends? I’m awfully sorry I made fun of your hair that time. Besides, it’s so long ago. I think your hair is awfully pretty now – honest, I do. Let’s be friends.” Anne hesitates but then spurns his friendship, although she is “conscious of an odd feeling of regret.”

4. The Rivalry

When Anne and Gilbert both join the class studying for admission to Queen’s (to become teachers), their rivalry in the classroom becomes intense and everyone knows it. Even Diana, who has always had a soft spot for Gilbert knows that for Anne “success would be incomplete and bitter if she did not come out ahead of Gilbert Blythe.” They tie in the exam, but Anne’s name is the one listed first in the newspaper!

5. At the White Sands Hotel

Anne unexpectedly has stage fright when she is supposed to recite The Maiden’s Vow at a concert at the White Sands Hotel. She sees Gilbert smiling and misinterprets it as taunting whereas he is really admiring her. Regardless, that is all the motivation she needs to perform well.

6. Reconciliation

After Anne gives up her scholarship to Redmond to stay home with Marilla and teach school, Gilbert turns down the Avonlea school position so that Anne can teach there and be closer to home. She is still not speaking to him but when she runs into him, he politely lifts his cap. Anne, flushing, thanks him and admits she is sorry she did not accept his previous apology. Gilbert says jubilantly, “We were born to be the best of friends, Anne. You’ve thwarted destiny long enough.” Indeed!

Anne of Avonlea

7. Anne of Avonlea has too much about Dora and Davy (both very tedious characters). It’s obvious to everyone that Gilbert is smitten while Anne, starved of friendship as a child, merely thinks of him as a good chum. There is one scene at the Dryad’s Bubble where she acknowledges to herself that he is handsome, although not her ideal man. Gilbert, however, has made up his mind to be “worthy of Anne’s friendship and perhaps some distant day her love.…” But he had “already too good reason to know that Anne would mercilessly and frostily nip all attempts at sentiment in the bud – or laugh at him, which was ten times worse.”

There are two hints that Gilbert is The One: the first is when Diana gets engaged and when Anne contemplates her own house of dreams, she can’t shake the image of Gilbert being there with her. Then, after Miss Lavender’s wedding, Gilbert talks about the ideal of a couple “going hand in hand all the way through life” without misunderstanding, and for the first time Anne’s heart flutters and it occurs to her that “love [might] unfold[] naturally out of a beautiful friendship, as a golden-hearted rose slipping from its green sheath.” Gilbert wisely says nothing more, biding his time.

Anne of the Island

8. Gilbert’s Proposal

The descriptions of college fun and housekeeping in Anne of the Island are rudely interrupted by Gilbert’s proposal and Anne’s rejection. When Anne (unable to forestall his declaration) tells him she does not love him, his face becomes white to the lips and he gives a bitter little laugh. “Friends! Your friendship can’t satisfy me, Anne. I want your love – and you tell me I can never have that.” He leaves and Anne “felt as if something incalculably precious had gone out of her life. It was Gilbert’s friendship, of course. Oh, why must she lose it in this fashion?” I read this book repeatedly and found this scene agonizing every time.

9. Gilbert’s Illness

Anne snubs everyone who tries to take Gilbert’s place until the most memorable umbrella scene in history – when Roy Gardner appears and shelters Anne with his. Yet she carries Gilbert’s flowers at Redmond graduation even before she recognizes that Roy is wrong for her*and turns down his proposal. Back in Avonlea that summer, she learns that Gilbert has typhoid fever#:

There is a book of Revelation in everyone’s life, as there is in the Bible. Anne read hers that bitter night, as she kept her agonized vigil through the hours of storm and darkness. She loved Gilbert – had always loved him. She knew that now. She knew that she could no more cast him out of her life without agony than she could have cut off her right hand and cast it from her. And the knowledge had come too late – too late even for the bitter solace of being with him at the last. If she had not been so blind, so foolish – she would have had the right to go to him now. But he would never know that she loved him – he would go away from this life thinking that she did not care.

How I suffered with Anne when she thought Gilbert was dying! I thought Gilbert’s illness went on for a whole chapter but really LMM only keeps us in suspense for two pages.

10. Gilbert’s Second Proposal

Luckily, Anne’s friend Phil wrote to Gilbert to tell him Anne had turned down Roy, so he was able to accelerate his recovery, then he invites Anne to visit Hester Gray’s Garden where –with more confidence – he proposes again:

“I have a dream,” he said slowly. “I persist in dreaming it, although it has often seemed to me that it could never come true. I dream of a home with a hearth-fire in it, a cat and dog, the footsteps of friends – and you!”

Anne wanted to speak but she could find no words. Happiness was breaking over her like a wave. It almost frightened her.

“I asked you a question over two years ago, Anne. If I ask it again today, will you give me a different answer?”

Still Anne could not speak. But she lifted her eyes, shining with all the love-rapture of countless generations, and looked into his for a moment. He wanted no other answer.

Gilbert has a few poignant moments in Anne’s House of Dreams particularly when Anne loses the baby(none I recall after that – he is too tired by then) but nothing to dislodge these top ten moments.

* One can only imagine how horrified Roy’s preppy family was by his infatuation with a penniless orphan, regardless of her charm. Think how nasty Mitchum Huntzberger was to Rory Gilmore, yet although illegitimate, she was likely to inherit her grandparents’ money.

# Why would Gilbert get typhoid fever from studying too much? It’s a bacterial disease! Of course, I did not know this at 12. Was there a misdiagnosis? Did Dr. Clarkson do his residency on Prince Edward Island?

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