Sunday, February 2, 2014

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

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 5, 2014

British historian Catherine Bailey had been researching a book on World War I when she contacted the 11th Duke of Rutland for access to his family’s archives. His grandfather John, the 9th Duke of Rutland, had served in the war. No historian had ever been granted permission to view the 20th century archives in the sixty years since the 9th Duke had died, alone on a sofa in cramped rooms where the archives were kept, near the servants' quarters of the family’s estate Belvoir Castle. As Bailey began studying the archives, she realized that the 9th Duke was a meticulous record-keeper, but that he was desperately trying to cover up a family secret before he died. Bailey chronicles her search to uncover this secret in The Secret Rooms. As Bailey sifted through thousands of personal letters, journals, and guest books from the Rutland family, she noticed that the Duke, who had devoted his life to cataloging several hundred years’ worth of family correspondence, had very carefully excised three distinct periods of his life from the archives, two of them during his service in World War I. What had happened during those times that were so painful or embarrassing that the Duke had wanted to completely scrub it from the record? What Bailey discovers could be the plot of a lost Agatha Christie novel: secrets, lies, manipulation, and even treason. In addition to having full access to the archives at Belvoir Castle, Bailey interviewed surviving staff members from the 9th Duke’s era, and chased leads from the National Archives in London to private collections of family papers of some of Britain’s most powerful families. As Downton Abbey fans gear up for the fourth season’s premiere in January, The Secret Rooms gives real inner workings of one of Britain’s most powerful families, and the lengths they went to in order to uphold their reputation and power.

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Haddon's effigy in the Belvoir Chapel
Image by Russavia
I've been bouncing around thoughts on Catherine Bailey's The Secret Rooms for a couple of weeks now, vainly trying to convince myself that I don't know what I want to say when in reality I've just been putting off a review I wasn't in the mood to write. Something about wanting to like a book more than I did, having to rectify deflated expectations against the reality of experience, call me crazy but it just doesn't insight much enthusiasm. 

Now, before I get too far ahead of myself I want to say I love the mystery Bailey uncovered at Belvoir Castle. I think it a genuinely authentic intrigue that says a lot about the family's dynamics, society in the early twentieth century, etc. and so on. Honestly, if The Secret Rooms were streamlined exclusively to the mystery surrounding John Henry Montagu Manners, 9th Duke of Rutland, and restructured to follow a chronological timeline of his movements, I'd be giving this book four stars if not five, but that's not Bailey's style. 

No, Bailey skips back and forth over the established timeline, making it necessary for the reader to piece together events from a chaotic hodgepodge of information and often follows random tangents about flowers, sunlight or minor characters for pages before returning to her central story. She also tends to make mountains out of mole hills, routinely overemphasizing events that are only loosely related to her primary subject and finally, her penchant for repeating herself ad nauseam is more than a little annoying. 

Could I overlook the mechanics of the text and focus on Bailey's thesis? Of course, but I can't say I'm particularly inclined to do so. Why? Probably because I felt the same way about Bailey's 2008 release, Black Diamonds. Bailey has a nose for unearthing provocatively alluring material, but superior subject matter aside, her haphazard construction and irregular formatting make her books somewhat tedious and at times, frustratingly incoherent. 

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I had arranged to meet Mr Granger, the Duke of Rutland’s archivist, in the castle’s Muniment Rooms. Then, I knew nothing of that sad day in April 1940; I did not know that John, the 9th Duke, had died in the rooms that I was about to see, or that they had been sealed after his death. Nor did I know that his servants had once called them the ‘Secret Rooms’.
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