Book review: 'The Secret Rooms' by Catherine Bailey
Editor's note: This is the first edition of a new series at the Lebanon Daily News, where the six libraries in the county will rotate each month with a book review.
Although non-fiction and I don't always get along, this is one non-fiction book that I've read from start to finish, which is something that should be applauded for me. And I am so glad I did because this book has so much intrigue, secrets, mystery, cyphers and more mystery thanks to three deliberately created gaps in the ducal family's extensive historical archive. But what does it all mean? And what are the secrets this family is hiding? And why are they hiding them?
Let me tell you, readers, the lengths this dude went to cover up his secrets was extreme.
While he was largely successful in covering up the family secret, which remains cloaked in the mists of history, his personal secret regarding his military service during wartime was sussed out by the intrepid and determined detective/researcher of an author. There is family drama, a meddling mama, overwrought tensions between parents and child, and animosity and estrangement between same parents and child.
Bailey begins research on a book that will examine wartime England in 1915, specifically wartime on the Belvoir estate, the ducal seat of the Duke of Rutland. When Bailey's research uncovers an unfortunate and curious gap in the family's correspondence that covers the very months she's researching, she is mystified and disappointed. Further digging uncovers another months long gap in the family's correspondence in 1894 that abridges the harrowing and tragic months that include those preceding and those following the death of the heir to the dukedom and then another gap in correspondence is discovered in 1909.
Her research stymied, her book impossible, Bailey's purview takes a turn. Who excised these long gaps of letters from the family's vast archival holdings? Could it be the same duke who painstakingly organized, archived and cataloged these same holdings that encompass 800 years of family papers, correspondence, history, estate rental logs, visitors' logs, other estate records and documents of national importance?
Why would he do this?
What did the gaps conceal and why was it concealed? For Bailey, the only conclusion can be that it was the duke who excised the material, that it must be a secret pertaining to him, and that it is most likely that the subsequent gaps all date back to the original secret concealed by the first gap — that in some way each gap's secret relates back to the first gap.
And while Bailey succeeds in piecing together the secrets hidden by the latter gaps, the one that remains hidden by the first gap can still only be theorized about based upon conjecture gleaned from the few letters that remain extant relating to 1894.
Bailey's new focus uncovers a family tragedy shrouded in mystery, complex and difficult familial relationships, estrangements and family secrets not to mention intrigue (oh, the intrigue) on the part of the meddling duchess.
Upon further extensive research, analysis and examination of the events and correspondence surrounding each of the three gaps, specifically the one occurring during the Great War, extreme intrigue, plotting and manipulation of epic national proportions is brought to light. For example, there is a rather long section of the book that details the machinations of, at times, up to five individuals conspiring to manipulate the duke's heir (who is later the duke who excised the correspondence gaps) to bend to their will for the good of the dukedom.
What is revealed over the course of the book is a dark portrait of a dysfunctional family crippled by the grief of a terrible tragedy.
The story is at its best when the author is on the research trail piecing together correspondence, events and family dynamics surrounding and during the gaps and expounding on analysis of what this means to the overarching story of the mystery of the events that the gaps conceal. Later sections of the book get bogged down in battlefield detail and the machinations and manipulations occurring in the months leading up to the third and final gap.
Ultimately, this is a highly engrossing, fascinating read, and I recommend it for those who enjoy reading about history, aristocracy and family intrigue and secrets.