Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey

The Secret Rooms: A True Story of A Haunted Castle, A Plotting Duchess, & A Family Secret
by Catherine Bailey

Published by: Penguin Books
Copyright: December 31, 2013
Format: paperback 
Pages: 512

Genre: Nonfiction, WWI, British History
Source: own book

From the back of the book:
When the 9th Duke of Rutland died alone in the cramped family archives on April 21, 1940, his son and heir, Charles, ordered the room sealed. Sixty years later, Catherine Bailey became one of the first historians allowed inside. What she discovered when she began reading through the duke's letters was a mystery involving one of the most powerful families in British society in the turbulent days leading up to World War I. The 9th Duke, who had devoted his entire adult life to organizing and cataloging several hundred years' worth of family correspondence, had carefully erased three periods of his life from the record. But why? Filled with fascinating real-life characters, a mysterious death, family secrets and affairs aplenty, The Secret Rooms is an enthralling, page-turning true story that reads like an Agatha Christie novel.

First - I think they rather mis-marketed this book. The title of this book is horribly misleading. There is no haunted castle - just a couple of random stories like those you would hear associated with any house that old and that are only mentioned in passing - so if you are expecting a ghost story, you are going to be sadly disappointed. There is a plotting duchess and a family secret, but honestly - they were not what made the book interesting to me. Finally, the secret rooms were not, in any way, actually secret. Everyone knew precisely where they were (they are clearly marked on the map in the book). They were just off limits. A better title would have been Secrets Rooms - i.e. rooms that held secrets.

The book really is the story of the author, who was in the process of researching a book about WWI. She was one of the first historians allowed into the archives of Belvoir Castle. Once there, instead of getting the information she was looking for about the war, she ran into a very precise gap in the records. Instead of being able to pursue her original plan, she gets derailed into trying to figure out why the 9th Earl of Rutland spend the last days of his life carefully destroying all the letters he could find for three very specific ranges of dates.

The first part of the book jumps around a bit - with rather too much emphasis on the whole 'curse on first sons' and 'deep dark secrets' thing trying to evoke the feeling of a Gothic novel almost - but was still fun to read as you followed the author around in her attempt to fill in the gaps and figure out what happened to John Manners (who became the 9th Duke of Rutland) during those periods of time.

The second half of the book is a rather more straightforward narrative, where the author explains what she pieced together once she gets her hands on the few letters that survived. It gets a bit bogged down as the reader goes mentally back and forth trying to tie together the information fed out piecemeal in the first half of the book into the narrative in the second half of the book. On the whole, however, the book offers a fascinating (and in several ways appalling) view into WWI and the activities of one very influential family. 

However, I really hated the way the author chose to end the book. The current Duke and his wife were apparently very helpful in terms of giving the author access to the archives, and in giving her permission to publish something completely different than the WWI book she was originally proposing to write. The book certainly doesn't paint most of the Dukes ancestors in a positive light at all. The way the book ended, it felt like the author was still extremely mad at the 9th Duke for terminating her original line of research (she lists the names of all of the soldiers whose stories she could no longer follow in the book - though honestly, if she was depending on the letters home of a single ADC - their story still would have been pretty impossible to tell - what if John had only written home about personal stuff and not the war, or what if he was a lousy correspondent? The frustration of finding that John had initially kept a detailed and well written journal and then learn that the time period she was interested in either suddenly disconnected or had been destroyed must really have gotten under her skin.) The ending of the book was really abrupt, piecemeal and unsatisfying. Seriously - at that point, to heck with John and his lot - she gave them their piece. What about tying together the WWI story and bringing it forward to modern times?  That would have been much more satisfactory. Instead the end left me ticked off too. 

So - some mixed feeling about this one. Initially I was enjoying the book very much, not for the "secrets" but for the history and sociology - information about the activities of some of the British Aristocracy leading up to World War I and just how badly the war was being run initally. It is a fascinating portrait of a time and lifestyle completely alien to a modern American. I just wish it could have tied up better. I felt rather cheated and left with the sludge of some seriously nasty people. Blugh.

So - the other bit of mismarketing was how promotional material related the book to Downtown Abbey. I can only assume they did that because someone decided that the only information Americans have about Great Britain in WWI is through the PBS series. They are not related. You do have intrigue and such, but it is not akin to watching Upstairs/Downstairs. If you were disappointed by how Downtown Abbey presented WWI and are interested in a more detailed description of the interactions of a Dukedom with the flow of historical events, this book might be of interest to you. If you are reading the book for a deep historical mystery with a dramatic reveal, you are going to be disappointed.

Mostly it is a serious history that got overlain by the machinations of a seriously dysfunctional family with too much power. If that interests you, it will be worth the 500+ pages.


  1. This book sounds so interesting! I really liked how mysterious the blurb made it sound, and then your review, which gave me more information about what it was about, really intrigued me. I'd definitely have preferred a ghost story, but historical secrets sound really good too! Thanks for sharing. =)

  2. Hopping over from the Nonfiction Reading Challenge....

    I'm fascinated by archives and by historical people who edited their own biographies. This sounds perfect for me -- especially with the WWI centenary tie-in.

    Glad to know your problem with the ending. That will bug me, too, but easier to take if I'm warned!

    I've been listening to podcasts of Home Front, a radio drama from BBC Radio Four about WWI. You might like it:


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