The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery by Catherine Bailey

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The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery by Catherine Bailey

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: In 1940 John, 9th Duke of Rutland, died in a cramped suite of rooms in the servants' quarters of his family home, Belvoir Castle. What family secrets had he spent his last weeks trying to conceal? The author has unravelled a fascinating tale of mystery and deception.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 466 Date: November 2012
Publisher: Viking/Penguin
ISBN: 9780670917556

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Like many an enthralling novel, this book starts with a death from natural causes yet in odd circumstances which initially leaves several questions unanswered. In fact, in spite of the subtitle, and also knowing nothing about the family whose story it tells in part, I had to look through the book thoroughly before reading, to satisfy myself that it actually was non-fiction.

The death in question, and in fact the character of whom this is in effect more or less a biography, is John Manners, ninth Duke of Rutland. He died in April 1940 in his mid-fifties, almost alone, lying in a cramped suite of rooms in the servants’ quarters at his family home, Belvoir (pronounced Beaver) Castle. That he should have chosen, in fact insisted, on seeing out his days in such surroundings was puzzling to say the least. The mystery was compounded when his son sealed the rooms after his death, and nobody was allowed in them for several decades afterwards.

The author initially came to Belvoir to research a book about the area during the First World War, and the men from the estate who joined up to go and fight. Instead, astonished by what she found when she arrived, she ended up writing a completely different work – this one – in its place. Sorting through the family archives, and exploring the castle, including several rooms which elderly retainers and servants initially told her rather frostily were out of bounds to the likes of her, led her to stumble on a story which had never been told and needed unravelling. The late Duke spent a large amount of time personally cataloguing several thousand family documents, in addition to collecting archaeological fragments, birds’ eggs, photographs and the like. It all suggested to the author some kind of refuge, a compulsive interest indicating a desire to escape into a private world, perhaps pointing to a character who had been emotionally deprived or even abused in infancy. He had also done his best to try and ensure that the full story would never be told, and that there were three large gaps in his archive, namely from the years 1894, shortly before his eighth birthday, 1909, when he was working in Rome, and 1915, during the First World War. Some of the letters were encrypted, which added to the air of mystery.

Needless to say, the author immediately rose to the challenge. She has managed to get to the root of several mysteries. Who was the intruder who broke into the castle shortly after the Duke’s death, and left apparently without taking a single document or even any other item? (You will find no spoiler in this review). What was the truth about the death in childhood of his elder brother, Lord Haddon, and did their parents deliberately falsify the official version of events? Why was little John, now heir to the title, sent away from home by his parents to be brought up by an uncle? The ramifications of the firstborn’s short life and its aftermath continued to haunt the family for a long time.

His mother Violet evidently never really recovered from the death of her adored elder son. Even so, the author pulls no punches in her portrayal of a very manipulative woman who believed that even in the early twentieth century aristocratic families were still above the law. There was evidently no love lost between mother and second son, who never really understood each other, and the result was a family rift which seemingly never healed. As for his father, he was a gentler, more reasonable character, but belonged to an age long since vanished, believing he had to live in a certain style which the income from his estates could no longer support in the post-war world. In many matters, especially those pertaining to their family, he was presumably overruled by a determined wife. It might be noted in passing that there were three sisters, the youngest being Diana, later Lady Diana Cooper, actress, socialite and mother of historian John Julius Norwich.

The events of 1909 in Rome are also examined in some depth, as are the wartime episode and a broken engagement. However there was a more or less happy ending to this, when the young but plainly unsuited lovers moved apart and John found the real Miss Right. (Their marriage in 1916 endured, although ultimately it did not prove a happy one, and the Duchess later confided in a friend that she thought the Rutland family was not one which should be perpetuated). In the process, to coin a phrase, John Manners ended up abandoning his duty to King and country.

The text is supplemented by three sections of black and white plates, a genealogical table, a plan of the Belvoir estate in 1914, and ground plans of all three floors.

They say that each person’s mystery dies when he or she passes on. John, ninth Duke of Rutland, went to great lengths to try and ensure that his did as well. Catherine Bailey has gone to enormous lengths to establish the truth of what lay hidden beneath his efforts for so long. How she did so, and what was then revealed, makes for an extraordinary story that in places could almost be the stuff of fiction.

If this book appeals then we think you might enjoy We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh

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Buy The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery by Catherine Bailey at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery by Catherine Bailey at


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