The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey: Book Review

A dying duke spent his final hours destroying letters and records in his family archives. Why?

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey
Penguin Books, 2013

Also by this author:
Black Diamonds, A Castle in Wartime

Catherine Bailey came to Belvoir Castle, ancestral home of the Dukes of Rutland, to research a book about World War I. The archives were virtually untouched by historians – hardly anyone had been granted access. As Bailey says, “A mystique attached to the collection: ‘It is the holy grail,’ one historian had whispered…”

But when she found a gap in the family’s records for a key period in the war, her book idea was shot to hell.

Turns out, that gap was only one of three precisely curated gaps that left black holes in the Manners family records between 1909 and 1916. Here’s how she describes that experience:

“By the time I got to the fourth file, a clear pattern was emerging. It was not only John who had vanished. So, it appeared, had the entire Manners family. After 6 July [1915], their letters to John – and theirs to each other – were also missing.”

Weird, right?

Bailey thought so, too.

So she started digging.

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey is the story of her attempt to find the missing records and piece together the secrets that John Manners, the 9th duke, didn’t want anyone to find out.

Spoiler alert: I liked this book, but before I tell you what I liked about it, we need to talk about the Amazon reviews. Specifically, about the reviewers who felt disappointed or misled.

Should You Read It?

A fair number of Amazon reviewers were expecting something else from this book and mentioned how disappointed they were in their reviews. This almost turned me away from the book, but I’m glad I didn’t pay attention to them in the end.

So…what’s the disconnect? What were those reviewers expecting? And what did they get instead?

Some reviewers thought this was going to be a book about the Manners family, like a straight biography.

But that’s not what this book is.

It’s the story of a researcher’s quest to solve a particular mystery about why the family’s archives had been systematically purged to hide things that had happened in three very specific time frames. You’re going to get lots of information about the family’s activities during these time frames, but it’s not a straight biography of the 8th duke, his wife, his son, or their daughters.

John Manners as a young man pictured in profile. He's wearing a suit jacket, tie, and white-collard shirt. His hair is short and neat, with a part over his left eyebrow. He looks melancholy. | The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey book review
John Manners. Image from the George Grantham Bain Collection, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There are several things that led to this kind of confusion:

The Secret Rooms book cover. Belvoir Castle is in the foreground, with shadowy images of John Manners in a military uniform and Violet Manners, his mother, in profile.
  • The cover. It’s a very nice cover…but it does make it look like the book is all about the glamorous people who lived in Belvoir Castle. I would have gone for something that looked more like a researcher or writer, shuffling papers in a dungeon-like room, with misty images of the castle or the duke and duchess in the background.
  • The subtitle. The publisher was grasping at straws with the whole “haunted castle” thing. Haunting is mentioned, like, once. It’s not a factor at all. But having that mentioned so prominently in the subtitle really intrigued people and then disappointed them when they didn’t get any supernatural/haunted element. Also, there is a “plotting duchess,” but we’re close to halfway through the book before her plotting becomes part of the…well, plot. And it’s not like we’re talking about the Gunpowder Plot here. It’s relatively small-scale family drama. Entertaining and intriguing (to me), but I can see where readers thought there would be a bigger, grander mystery with fewer questions unanswered.
  • The book’s opening. You’re dropped into Belvoir Castle in late April of 1940, as John Henry Montagu Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland, is on his deathbed. The physician to King George VI has come to try and save him, but the irascible old man won’t let anyone near him. He’s holed up in a set of rooms he frequented in the servants’ quarters, rooms he absolutely refuses to let anyone else near. The problem? This opening reads like a novel – one centered on the Manners family. When things switch to Bailey as the main character, telling the story of her research, it confused people. I’d have suggested a quick foreword or prologue where Bailey sets the stage (and reader expectations), but no one asked me.

That being said, if you’re as interested in how people solve historical mysteries as you are in the mystery itself, this is the book for you.

What I Liked about The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey

I bought this book because I wanted to know what happens when a real-life mystery presents itself to you as a historian. I wanted the behind-the-scenes info about a researcher struggling with red herrings, mysteries that go unsolved, and what to do when the answers you need to write a 100% closed-loop narrative just aren’t available.

Long story short, it’s fascinating.

Bailey tells us what it felt like to open a box and look at papers last touched by a duchess whose father was besties with Queen Victoria:

“I lifted the lid of the box…I was about to be transported into the Duchess’s world in 1914. Inside, the letters were held in place by a metal clip. The spring on the clip was stiff; as I raised it, particles of rust scattered over the documents beneath….The imprint of the clip, I noticed, was stencilled in rust on the top letter: clearly, no one had looked at them for many years” (38).

Details like that rusty clip outline are what you’d expect from a fiction writer crafting a detective story. But here, the mystery is real.

As it turns out, the woman who wrote those letters – Violet, the wife of the 8th duke and mother of the 9th – is the star of the show. Her actions and emotions drive the forward motion of the book.

You’ll hear about Violet’s plans to marry her son to a jet-setting American heiress whose best friend said of her, “I’ve stopped reading fiction, I just read about you” (186). You’ll also see how Violet continually misspelled that heiress’s name in her letters.

Violet Manners, Duchess of Rutland, seated in a chair. She's looking off to the left, wearing an informal high-necked long-sleeved blouse, belt with diamond buckle, and skirt. Her waist is tightly corseted. | The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey book review
Violet Manners, Duchess of Rutland. Image by Herbert Rose Barraud, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I won’t tell you any more to keep from spoiling it, but this woman dragged two of her children into a complicated plot that had such shameful repercussions that her son spent his final hours removing all trace of it from the family archives.

It’s Worth Your Time

Bailey solves most of the mysteries about the 9th duke’s life and why he’d purge a such specific sections of his archives. The answers aren’t as earth-shaking as the beginning makes it seem, when Bailey spends several pages telling you about the British archives being moved to Belvoir for safe storage at the outbreak of World War II. Yes, that’s a part of the mystery, but don’t expect a Dan Brown novel with a worldwide conspiracy at its heart.

Other questions go unanswered, like why the duke’s mistress disguised herself as a man and climbed up a drainpipe to break into the castle and access his secret rooms just three days after he was buried.

Other questions go unanswered, like why the duke’s mistress disguised herself as a man and climbed up a drainpipe to break into the castle just three days after he was buried.

The unanswered questions are both the charm and the frustration of this book. They’re what make it real. They’re what remind us that mysteries are solved by real people, often doing work that seems like drudgery in order to turn speculation into fact.

The bottom line: If you can deal with the fact that this isn’t a novel where all loose ends are neatly tied up by the time the credits roll, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re thinking it’s just a juicy tell-all about the family, you’ll be disappointed.

Wondering why I didn’t give it four stars?

Well, I held one star back because of two admittedly small reasons. One, the book could have been a bit shorter. At 465 pages (according to my Kindle reader), it does have its slow parts. A thorough edit could have gotten this to a much tighter 350 pages.

Also, Bailey has a tendency to build up minor questions as if they were major cliffhangers at the end of a chapter. Then, in the beginning of the next chapter, she’ll say she found the answer in another letter in the archives. So there wasn’t really a cliffhanger in the first place – it was all artifice to keep you reading. I get why she (or her editor) did that, but as a reader, it got on my nerves.

Mind Your (Miss) Manners

If you’re interested in the Manners sisters (Marjorie, Letty, and Diana), they do play a small role here. Diana has the largest role of the three, and what happens to her will make you sad and angry.

Lady Diana Manners wearing an embroidered shawl, a double-stranded bead necklace, and a headband low on her forehead. | The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey book review
Lady Diana Manners in 1900. Image from the George Grantham Bain Collection, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I won’t give too much away (and if you’ve read her memoirs, you may already know the story). Let’s just say that Diana’s family loyalty is put to the ultimate test. How far would you go to preserve the honor of those closest to you? Before she became Lady Cooper, one of the most celebrated figures in 20th century London society, Diana was a daughter caught between a desperate mother and a hapless brother. I’m dying to read her memoirs now and get her version of events. In Bailey’s book, you’ll get her mother’s version, which is bound to be TOTALLY different because, well, mothers and daughters…you know how it goes.

Overall, The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey is worth a read. Whether you’re a fan of Downton Abbey-style conflict (subtle, but moving) or want a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to try and unravel a historical mystery, you’ll spend hours curled up on the couch tearing through pages. I know I did.

P.S. Want to see what else I read this year? Check out my 2019 royal reading list – all the royal research books I bought, borrowed or re-read this past year!

The End

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