Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: "The Secret Rooms"

Yet another reason why I don't settle on my top books of the year until the very last minute: I've just finished Catherine Bailey's The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess & a Family Secret (Penguin, 2013), and it will certainly end up making the list of my favorite books for this year.

Bailey was given access to the family archives of the Dukes of Rutland, held at Belvoir Castle, the family seat. The archives had been basically locked up in their rooms from the time of the death of the 9th Duke in 1940 until the early part of this century, and Bailey was one of the first historians permitted access. She'd intended to write quite a different book, one about the experiences of the men of Belvoir and the surrounding estates during World War I, but when she began exploring the archives she found the story she tells here, and determined to recount that instead. We should be very glad she did.

The 9th Duke spent the final years of his life closeted away in the rooms where the archives were kept, and in fact even died there, on a small couch, surrounded by the family papers. When Bailey began her search, she quickly found that the 9th Duke's motives had not been entirely pure of heart: he had created three very precise, but very thorough, gaps in the archival record by removing all the correspondence and papers for those date ranges. Bailey set out to discover just what happened during those periods, and that hunt forms the basic structure for the book. What she finds is a tale of real family drama and somewhat shocking behavior on the part of a good number of people.

I had a terrible time putting this down once I started reading. Bailey's account of her efforts to puzzle out the events of those three mysterious periods makes for riveting reading, and it's really a pleasure to dig into her own research process and methods ... not to mention all the fascinating things she manages to learn. I'm not going to share any of those here: go off and read the book.

This is not, I admit, a perfect book. The title and subtitle are slightly overdrawn (except for the "plotting duchess and a family secret" part), and not only do some questions remain unanswered, but there are also certain points that just prove unsatisfying or anticlimactic. But on the whole, I found this a tremendously interesting book, and recommend it highly.