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.