Reviews for Secret Rooms : A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret

Booklist Reviews 2013 December #1
While researching a book on WWI, historian Bailey stumbled on a crackerjack real-life mystery revolving around the life and times of John Henry Montagu Manners, the ninth Duke of Rutland. A meticulous curator who organized his illustrious family's documents and correspondence, he died in the archives suite of Belvoir Castle in 1940, refusing medical treatment until he completely expunged all records pertaining to three distinct yet interrelated periods in his life. As Bailey painstakingly unearths secret after secret in order to deduce what really happened between the years 1894 to 1915, the ghosts of scandals past surface in full force. Populated with a bevy of real-life aristos who played by their own twisted and privileged set of rules, a searing portrait of family intrigue, dysfunction, and hubris--à la Downton Abbey--emerges. Copyright 2013 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2014 January
The journey to discover high-society secrets

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.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2013 October #2
A British documentary producer and historian creates a bang-up detective story around mysterious gaps in the archives chronicling the sad tale of the ninth Duke of Rutland. The master of the Belvoir Castle, commanding thousands of acres and priceless treasures dating from the 11th century, the Duke of Rutland--John Henry Montagu Manners--died of pneumonia in the bowels of his keep in April 1940, not long after a top-secret convoy of royal documents was delivered to the castle for safekeeping during the war. Bailey is truly a dogged detective in getting at the essential questions surrounding the reclusive duke's labored death: What was he so keen on finishing before he would give up the ghost? An obsessive archivist, he had spent the last decades of his life carefully sifting through and cataloging the records pertaining to his family history, even before King George VI had sanctioned the evacuation of important national documents to the castle. In 2008, Bailey was allowed access to the duke's private sanctuary, which had been sealed after his death. In her tireless digging, she discovered three important omissions of material encompassing three distinct dates in John's life: August 1894, when he was 8 and his older brother, then heir to the dukedom, suddenly took ill and died; June 1909, when he was 22 and corresponding with his uncle in cipher about his father, who had attempted to sell off his inheritance; and, finally, during much of 1915, when he was supposed to be serving on the western front but instead returned home to Belvoir at the instigation of his mother. What Bailey essentially uncovers is an entire moribund way of life in the great aristocratic families and the shockingly self-serving privilege put before the sense of national purpose. A compelling expos on the once-almighty laws of ducal inheritance. Copyright Kirkus 2013 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2013 September #5

While researching another book, historian Bailey uncovered mysterious gaps in the correspondence of the 9th Duke of Rutland, John Manners. Wondering who had removed the letters, she unravels secret after secret of the wealthy family at Belvoir Castle circa WWI. These include coded messages, a cover-up of a young boy's death, disputes over inherited property, and possible military desertion. Bailey brings to life the calculating matriarch, Violet, Duchess of Rutland, who abandons John as a child and then tries to control every aspect of his life in adulthood via surveillance and emotional manipulation. She ruthlessly pursues a potential wife for her son and orchestrates a massive campaign to have him removed from the war's front lines that involved prostituting her daughter to a married military adviser. Bailey also recalls some of the major events of the war, including the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, where Britain suffered massive casualties while John was kept safe, due to his mother's machinations, and the Battle of Hill 60 at Ypres, where the Germans first used chemical weapons. Bailey deserves commendation for her meticulous research as well as her storytelling. Illus. (Jan.)

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