This is a wonderful book but I don’t want to tell you anything about it! This could be my shortest ever review. The Secret Rooms is the non-fiction equivalent of A S Byatt’s Possession. If you’ve read Possession you’ll know how exciting it was to follow Maud & Roland’s research as they pieced together the Victorian love story at the heart of the book. The Secret Rooms has the same feeling of excitement & anticipation as Catherine Bailey researches the mysteries at the heart of her research into a book she had no idea that she would write.
Catherine Bailey received permission to work in the archives at Belvoir Castle, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Rutland. The archives were kept in a series of rooms in the servant’s quarters, known as the Muniment Rooms. The ninth duke, John Manners, who died in 1940, had dedicated himself to cataloguing & collecting the records, accounts, letters & diaries of his ancestors & his more immediate family. Bailey planned to write a book about the effect of WWI on the families who worked on the estates of the Duke of Rutland. The eighth Duke, Henry, had been instrumental in encouraging the men from his estates to join the battalions he raised & his son, John, had served with the North Midlands.
The first mystery that Bailey came across was the attitude of the guides & staff to the fact that she was in the Muniment Rooms at all. No one ever went in there, she was told. The ninth Duke died in those rooms in 1940 & they’d been shut up ever since. This was intriguing. Why had John Manners died in the cold, cramped conditions of the Muniment Rooms when he had a whole castle with his own suite of rooms to lie in? John had refused all medical advice, even from the King’s own doctor, to leave. He had something he must finish.
Then, Bailey discovered that there were inexplicable gaps in the meticulously kept records. The most unexpected & devastating gap, from the point of view of her book, was that many of the family letters from the First World War were missing. Could they have been misfiled? No, after checking through hundreds of boxes & thousands of letters, the gap was still there. The lack of documentary evidence meant that Bailey was forced to reluctantly give up the book she had planned to write. However, she became fascinated with the life & death of John Manners, the ninth Duke, & this fascination led to the uncovering of family secrets that had lain dormant for over a century.
Bailey discovered two more gaps in the records of the family of Henry, the eighth Duke & his wife, Violet. Something had happened in 1894 & then again, there was a gap in 1909, when John was in Rome in the diplomatic service. The removal of material relating to these three gaps was meticulously done & Bailey comes to the inevitable conclusion that it was John who had removed the letters. Was this what he was doing in the final weeks of his life? Was he desperately trying to ensure that nothing remained to be found?
The Secret Rooms is as unputdownable as any mystery novel. I was enthralled from the very beginning & read 200 pages in a day. Bailey describes the steps of her research, the dead ends & the other archives & libraries she visits to try to fill in the gaps. Her research is frustrating but also immensely rewarding when she finds out another piece of the elaborate jigsaw. At the same time, she paints a fascinating picture of the privileged life of the aristocracy in the late Victorian & Edwardian period. The extreme wealth of the Rutlands couldn’t make them a happy family but I can’t say any more! You only have to look at the photos in the book to realise that there is some fundamental grief or unhappiness there. John never looks at the camera, always away to the side or down to the ground. All you need to know is that this is a beautifully written & researched book that will have you propping your eyes open so that you can read just one more chapter before you fall asleep. It’s a desperately sad story, compellingly told.