Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Gothic Mystery

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
 My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

There is a saying: "More money, more problems." After reading this book, I think there should be an addendum for nobility: "More titles, more drama." 

"The Secret Rooms" is the story of the 9th Duke of Rutland, John Henry Montagu Manners, and the family secrets he tried to hide. Before John died of pneumonia in April 1940, he locked himself into his archive rooms at Belvoir Castle and would not come out, working ceaselessly on a mysterious project, even against his doctor's orders to rest. After John died, his son closed the rooms and no one was allowed in them for nearly 60 years.

"[John's] obsession with collecting struck me as pathological. The pursuit and ordering of objects appeared to lie at the core of his personality. It seemed to go far beyond mere interest -- it was all-consuming, a compulsion. It looked as if these collections represented some sort of refuge, a form of escape into a private world. But what had he wanted to escape from?"

In 2008, Catherine Bailey was working on a book about World War I and was one of the few who was granted access to the closeted archives, called the Muniment Rooms. While going through family letters and papers, she found several gaps in the collection, as if John had deliberately removed correspondence to try and hide something.* Bailey got on the trail and ended up writing a very different kind of book than what she started. What she found was a lot of family drama, a scandalous coverup, and at the heart of it, a deeply unhappy child. (At one point, my heart broke for sweet little John and I wished I could have given him a hug.)

"I was becoming more and more caught up in the mystery behind this man, and starting to follow a different story -- his story. In creating the gaps in his biography, he had erased so much of himself -- and so thoroughly."

There were a lot of things I liked about this book: the inside look at a duke's family; the workings of an English castle; the historical setting; the details of how estate life changed during the Twentieth Century; and some fascinating details about the start of World War I, when John was sent to France. 

Bailey mentions the incredible privileges the ducal families were afforded, but she also discusses the immense social pressures they faced. I liked having this humanist perspective on the bookish, introverted John; it seems he would have chosen a very different life for himself if he hadn't been under a tremendous amount of pressure from his parents to live up to his future role as duke.

My complaint about the book was with the writing style. Bailey told the story from her perspective; everything plodded along as she found various letters and clues, and she often closed a chapter with a trite tease, such as: "What I discovered next changed the course of my research entirely." I even wrote ARGH on a post-it to flag such a page. I admit I can be fussy about writing, and other readers might not be bothered at all by the chapter teases -- they might even like them.

I wondered if this book could have been better if Bailey had not told it in first-person, because she sometimes got bogged down in too many me-me-me details and descriptions. Could the story have been better told in third person? 

Despite this complaint, I was still drawn into the story and was anxious to solve the family mystery (or mysteries, to be more correct). The blurbs for this book usually reference Downton Abbey, and I would agree that fans of that TV show would probably enjoy delving into the real-life drama of an aristocratic family.** I would also recommend it to my fellow Anglophiles, or anyone who likes a good family mystery and historical drama.

*While reading, frequently I wondered what kind of archivists we are today, with so many communications only in digital texts, emails or in social media. We save so little correspondence in print. 

**For those who would like to read more about the American heiresses who married into the British nobility in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I recommend the fascinating book, "To Marry an English Lord" by Gail MacColl.

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