Crenellated towers, mysterious deaths, possible hauntings, coded letters, and a fifty-something mistress climbing drainpipes to burgle the house of hidden rubies… Within pages, I realized I was reading one of my favorite kinds of book: a nonfiction history that wants to be a gothic novel when it grows up.
Author Catherine Bailey was given permission to use the family archives at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, in order to examine World War I as it affected a single English community. These archives are in “the secret rooms,” where John, the 9th Duke of Rutland, died in 1940. With 356 rooms to choose from, he remained on a mangy sofa in the unheated servants’ quarters, barring doctors and servants alike as he raced to finish some mysterious project before succumbing to pneumonia. After his death, the rooms were sealed. Now, opening the files for the first time in decades, Bailey is stymied by missing letters and empty diary pages, very specific gaps from which every family member’s correspondence have been removed. Servants keep popping up behind her in passageways to say things like “these rooms are forbidden… because of the curse.” What secret, she wonders, was the duke trying to excise from the family records before he died?
After setting the scene for every possible horror—maybe the duke was hiding a murdered body in the floorboards under his sofa?—Bailey settles down, reluctantly admits that she doesn’t believe in ghosts, and gets into the meat of the story. There is no body under the floorboards, just a slice of dysfunctional aristocratic life from the turn of the century through WWI. Fortunately, I also love dysfunctional, aristocratic slice of life stories! Cross referencing letters and leatherbound account books, exploring the archives of other noble families, and enlisting the help of a cryptographer, Bailey pieces together a family history of childhood tragedies, rows over money, and misleading war memorials.
For all the letters exchanged, no one says what they mean, and the somewhat guilty pleasure of reading between the lines entertains author and readers alike. (The very best thing about the avalanche of correspondence is how often the authors repeat, “destroy this letter!”) Choose sides: is John, the young duke-to-be, a bookish lad fascinated with archaeology or a tortured soul with an unhealthy interest in exhuming bodies? Does he reluctantly assume the mantle of responsibility for an ancient estate or hide from the front lines while the other young men of Leicestershire are being gassed in Belgium? Lady Violet: loving mother, calling in every favor to protect her children, or, as one of her acquaintances described her, a “Burne-Jones Medusa,” a master manipulator who spends forty years sculpting an effigy of her deceased eldest son while ruining the life of her second son, the “spare” heir?
The back cover blurb recommends this story to fans of Downton Abbey, and the setting and time period make it a good match. Here are the grand, failing estates and the rebellious younger generation torn whether to marry for love or money. But the manor house that really comes to mind in the end is melancholy Brideshead. Is Belvoir Castle haunted? You bet! Not by ghosts, but with regrets and guilty consciences.
Check the WRL catalog for The Secret Rooms.