After the Ninth Duke of Rutland, one of the wealthiest men in Britain, died alone in a cramped room in the servants quarters of Belvoir Castle on April 21, 1940, his son and heir ordered the room, which contained the Rutland family archives, sealed. Read more...
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After the Ninth Duke of Rutland, one of the wealthiest men in Britain, died alone in a cramped room in the servants quarters of Belvoir Castle on April 21, 1940, his son and heir ordered the room, which contained the Rutland family archives, sealed. Sixty years later, Catherine Bailey became the first historian given access. What she discovered was a mystery: The Duke had painstakingly erased three periods of his life from all family records but why? As Bailey uncovers the answers, she also provides an intimate portrait of the very top of British society in the turbulent days leading up to World War I."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-09-30
- Reviewer: Staff
While researching another book, historian Bailey uncovered mysterious gaps in the correspondence of the 9th Duke of Rutland, John Manners. Wondering who had removed the letters, she unravels secret after secret of the wealthy family at Belvoir Castle circa WWI. These include coded messages, a cover-up of a young boy’s death, disputes over inherited property, and possible military desertion. Bailey brings to life the calculating matriarch, Violet, Duchess of Rutland, who abandons John as a child and then tries to control every aspect of his life in adulthood via surveillance and emotional manipulation. She ruthlessly pursues a potential wife for her son and orchestrates a massive campaign to have him removed from the war’s front lines that involved prostituting her daughter to a married military adviser. Bailey also recalls some of the major events of the war, including the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, where Britain suffered massive casualties while John was kept safe, due to his mother’s machinations, and the Battle of Hill 60 at Ypres, where the Germans first used chemical weapons. Bailey deserves commendation for her meticulous research as well as her storytelling. Illus. (Jan.)
The journey to discover high-society secrets
Historian Catherine Bailey was all set to write a book about the impact of World War I on the people who lived on the Duke of Rutland’s huge estate in the Midlands of England. As part of her research, she delved into the family archives at the duke’s stately home, Belvoir Castle—and found another story that makes the fictional shenanigans at Downton Abbey look like a tea party.
Bailey noticed an oddity: There was a gap in the papers of the 9th Duke, John, covering a crucial period of his wartime military service. More digging revealed two similar gaps. John was an odd duck, by nature an obsessive collector. The missing papers could not be happenstance. Was he hiding something?
He was indeed. The Secret Rooms is Bailey’s gripping account of her quest to unravel the mystery. It’s an astonishing story that uncovers the dark side of the aristocracy at a time when dukes were still rich and powerful but were facing the decline of their fortunes. Impelled by family hatred and greed, John’s parents—Henry, the 8th Duke, and his wife, Violet—stopped at nothing to stem that decline: financial fraud, lies, subversion of the legal, military and medical systems, sexual coercion and cover-ups.
Their guilt-ridden son managed to destroy much of the evidence before his death in the castle’s “secret rooms.” But Bailey doggedly pursues the truth. She finds an expert to crack the code John used in his letters. She interviews aged servants. She mines other aristocrats’ archives, finds Violet’s unburned letters and pores over the memoir by John’s sister, the once-famous Lady Diana Manners. The ugly secrets are revealed.
The Secret Rooms is a fabulous read. Bailey ably alternates chapters between her own search and her findings about what John was trying to conceal. A family tree, a map of the estate and floor plans of Belvoir help us follow along. Only a few people emerge with reputation intact—Lady Diana, for one. John himself is ultimately a tragic figure who paid quite a price for his “noble” family’s survival at the top of the heap.