Book 7; Continent: Europe

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey

  • Nonfiction to cure the hangover from your “Downton Abbey” Netflix-binge
  • 465 pages (427 excluding the notes and the index, but including the worthwhile epilogue)

Historian Catherine Bailey arrived at Belvoir Castle to research a book about World War I using the late Duke of Rutland’s exceptional library and collected personal papers, but the staff’s wariness and superstition about the rooms in which they were stored distracted her. The 9th Duke, John Henry Montagu Manners, owner of the castle, had died of pneumonia in these spartan rooms while he barred his appointed physicians from entry. He kept his doctors out while he feverishly worked. Her original topic sidetracked, Bailey became determined to find out what a dying duke wanted to finish so badly that he put an oxygen tent in the “sealed rooms” and expired there.

As she discovers, John had excised three time periods from nearly all the family correspondence—his own, his mother’s, and his father’s, plus papers of any other family members. John had been a meticulous record-keeper of the numerous letters and telegrams that served as frequent and crucial means of communication. Among other tasks, John and his uncle labeled and annotated letters and photographs that were decades old. The family library included a catalog of handwriting samples for family members going back centuries, compiled by John and his uncle, to identify the writer for any family document they might find. The voids in the letters exchanged during that time could not be coincidental. Was the duke using his final days to destroy evidence of one or more family secrets?

Bailey’s access to this extraordinary collection of letters allows her to create a more lively narrative than most nonfiction works can offer. Quoting them heavily permits the characters in John’s universe to do the talking. One principal player was John’s mother, Violet, the scheming, melodramatic duchess who advanced her own agenda with a Machiavellian hand. As Bailey quotes passages from Violet’s letters, one can almost hear a strident female voice behind the heavily underlined and overly punctuated content. Another character was Henry, the 8th Duke and Violet’s husband. Henry lacked sophisticated tastes or, alas for the Manners family, financial acumen. The latter condition drives his own motives. His letters are blunt and relatively short in contrast to Violet’s own gushing. Other people appear frequently, including John’s bachelor uncle, Charles (“Charlie”), who essentially raises him from late childhood, and John’s beautiful sister, Diana.

Greed, spite and pride account for the moral dilemmas faced by these principal players. Intrigues involve not only the ducal family, but British military officers, respected physicians and even a wealthy American entrepreneur. Throughout the story, John and Uncle Charlie share genuine affection, making Charlie’s own behavior ultimately understandable, if not entirely above reproach. Even Diana, who comes across as perhaps the best-adjusted member of the Manners family, is not unscathed by the events missing in the late duke’s papers. Each family member’s choices uncovered in Bailey’s thorough research keeps the pages turning.

Although Bailey’s narrative is surprisingly lively and reads like a synopsis for a PBS or BBC show, its ultimate value is in the theme for readers to consider. That is, the Manners family traces its noble ancestry to the eleventh century. Their breeding places them firmly among Britain’s titled and noble peers, but how important is rank in the opening decades of the twentieth century, and to whom does it still matter? As Violet seeks favor with key military figures, some are nearly worshipful of the duchess, while others hold her in contempt. This question grows into an important theme for the book.

This story could not have been shaped so superbly without Bailey’s own knowledge of World War I-era Britain. The context she supplies in some places highlights the drama of decisions and remarks which might otherwise seem less extraordinary. In other places, the background information she furnishes prevents people or events from seeming entirely implausible. Indeed, Bailey’s own ability to draw key inferences from existing materials surrounding those missing dates proves crucial, as she essentially matches wits with a duke who wanted to bury the stories she’d discovered. Modern staff offered Bailey only the hand-me-down tales from the servants of the day along with their own superstition (including reference to a centuries-old witches’ curse!), so the author mines even some unlikely documents for useful details.

A couple of weeks ago, if you asked me to write down everything I learned in school about WWI, I doubt I could have offered more than a few sentences. I suspect few forty-something Americans could. For someone like me, who does not care to read books about warfare generally, Bailey’s book charmed me into filling a gap in my historical knowledge. If you still need one more book for that last trip to the beach, consider this one. You’ll make time for its sealed rooms in the gloomy moorland castle, its mysteries and its larger-than-life characters. In the process, Bailey will sneak some history by you in the form of setting and plot elements.

Image by Christine Matthews for the Geograph Project, www.geograph.org.uk.

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