Monday, February 17, 2014

I'm just too American, and too young, for this book...

This is the story of John Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland. What’s different about his biography is not the circumstances of his life, but his effort to keep three separate periods of it a secret from posterity.

John Manners was an avid historian and, in later life, made it his mission to preserve and catalog the entire history of the Rutland family. Letters, menus, household expenses, diaries, etc., all were meticulously sorted and organized. Manners lived in the records room working on this family history up until the moment he died of pneumonia in 1940. After  his death the damp, uncomfortable room in Belvoir Castle was sealed up by his son Charles, the 10th Duke of Rutland. Never used. Never opened.  

In time David Manners inherited the title and became the 11th Duke of Rutland. He did not have his father’s issues about the room and allowed Catherine Bailey access to it and the documents it contained. Ms. Bailey was doing research about the area surrounding Belvoir during the years of WWI. The estate, and the Manners family, played a large part in this history. In 1914, the estate consisted of thirty villages. The 9th Duke of Rutland encouraged his tenants to join the war effort, and a fifth of the men answered the call. 1,700 men went to battle for England, and 249 never returned. One of the men who went to war was John Manners, Marquis of Granby.

While looking through the documents Bailey discovered a mystery: three periods of the Manners family archives were gone. There were no letters, no diaries, no biographical information for a period in August of 1894, a time in June of 1909, and a gap in 1915 during John’s time at the front. 356 days were missing from John’s life, and the lives of the Manners family. Bailey set out to discover what had happened during those missing days, and why the Marquis of Granby, later the 10th Duke of Rutland, was so desperate to excise them from history.  

I was very disappointed by this book. The title, The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, & a Family Secret, led me to believe it would be full of ghosts, hidden passages, and intrigue. Instead it is a family history and war memoir. The secrets aren’t explosive, the plotting and scheming was not terribly scandalous, and I have no idea why the author used the word “haunted” when there is nothing ghostly or supernatural. However, the book was well researched and written, and I kept reading just to see if anything interesting happened. I think being American, and a few generations removed from this period in history, lessened the impact of the startling revelations Catherine Bailey discovered.

This is not a bad book, its just not for me. Fans of Downton Abbey may enjoy it, though, as the family and estate involved are in Grantham, a mere 98 miles from Newbury and Highclere Castle. Those interested in war memoirs would also enjoy this glimpse into life at home among the aristocracy during the war.

Bailey, Catherine. The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, & a Family Secret. Penguin Books, New York: 2013 


  1. I think they were marketing this towards Downton fans. I add it to my collection because I knew all our Downton fans would scoop it up and they have!

    1. I enjoy Downton Abbey, too, and aspects of this were interesting because of that show. It was also very revealing in what WWI privileges were meted out to the aristocracy, and the power they held over government figures. Also how little choice the children had in the course of their lives...which is kind of sad.