The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery by Catherine Bailey - review
Frances Wilson on deaths and disappearances in Belvoir Castle
By Frances Wilson
The Guardian, Friday 16 November 2012 / http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/nov/16/the-secret-rooms-catherine-bailey-review
When Catherine Morland, her imagination fuelled by Gothic romances, visits the Tilney family home in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, she hopes to find a suite of "secreted" rooms in which "something is certainly to be concealed." Her wish is granted when she is shown the chamber in which, nine years before, Mrs Tilney had died. Hearing that the lady's death was sudden and that the room has since remained untouched, "Catherine's blood ran cold with … horrid suggestions." Was Mrs Tilney murdered by her husband? The room, Catherine decides, contains a delicious mystery.
Catherine Bailey also likes bloodcurdling secrets. In her previous book, Black Diamonds, she delved into the archives at Wentworth, the Yorkshire home of the feuding Fitzwilliams, and found a skeleton in every cupboard. In The Secret Rooms, Bailey takes her magnifying glass to Belvoir Castle, home of the Dukes of Rutland. Her original plan had been to research a book about the ploughmen and fieldworkers from the Belvoir estate who had served in the first world war. The archives she needs are stored in the castle's five locked muniment rooms, and when Bailey is told that in 1940, John, the ninth duke, died of pneumonia in one of them, her own blood runs cold with horrid suggestions. Why did John choose to die here rather than in any of the 320 more opulent rooms in the castle? Why has the room since been untouched? A former servant tells Bailey that at the time of the duke's death, "a culture of secrecy pervaded the castle." John had been closeted in these "secret rooms" for a decade; organising the family papers was "his life's work". Bailey's interest in history gives way to her passion for mystery, and she discards the sensible book she had been planning to write this silly one instead.
Deciding that John had "died in mysterious circumstances", she now can't throw a stone without hitting a secret. The "secret rooms" are filled with "top secrets", "dark secrets", boxes marked "secret" and secrets people have "taken to the grave". Disappointingly, none of these secrets is a secret at all, merely something that no one has so far bothered to venture into. Neither does the book contain the gothic mystery promised in the subtitle: the story Bailey tells seems instead to be a quintessentially Edwardian one of class obsession, hypocrisy and constipated emotion.
Reading the family correspondence, Bailey discovers that John has edited his own biography. There are gaps in the otherwise complete letter runs, one of which coincides with the death, when John was seven, of his elder brother, Haddon. A plaque next to Haddon's tomb – an exquisite life-size effigy modelled in plaster by his mother, Violet – states that he died of TB, but there is also the suggestion that Haddon died, as Violet put it in a letter, "after twisting something inside". Either way, after his brother's funeral, John was sent to live with his uncle Charlie. Seeing his "dismissal" from Belvoir in the darkest possible light, Bailey inevitably wonders at the "chilling possibility that John had actually killed his brother" in some kind of accident. But Violet, a considerably more interesting woman than Bailey presents her, might just as plausibly have removed her young son from the grief-stricken house as an act of kindness. The distribution of children around the family was, until recently, an unremarkable event, and Charlie clearly provided a far happier home for John than the wretched one he had left behind.
Letters written in cypher between John and Charlie once again get the drums rolling. Decoded, they describe a row between father and son in which John describes his father, at one point, as "Asshole, C***". The ferocity of his words, Bailey writes pensively, "suggests a darker reality behind the glittering surface of their lives", except that the surface of family life at Belvoir Castle had never remotely glittered.
The final and most striking gap in the archive begins in 1915, when John, who is meant to be with his battalion in France, simply vanishes from the records. In her search for his whereabouts, Bailey describes every blind alley and quotes in full a series of irrelevant letters. The mystery is resolved when she reads the Belvoir visitor's book: John has gone home. His return to the safety of the castle for the duration of the war is the secret described on the book's cover as "so dark that it consumed the life of the man who fought to his death to keep it hidden". It is certainly a grim story, but has hardly been hidden. The fact that Violet kept her son back from the war is a matter of public record. Not wanting to lose the heir to the estate, she pulled strings to ensure that John was given a fraudulent medical discharge before his battalion saw action. It was the evidence of his "desertion" that, Bailey suggests, he was trying to erase before he died.
One is reminded of Oscar Wilde's short story about an enigmatic woman whose furtive activities are shrouded in mystery. After her death it transpires that she had "a passion for secrecy" but nothing to hide; she was, Wilde concludes, "a sphinx without a secret".
Book review: The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery by Catherine Bailey
PUBLISHERS today have a lot to answer for, not least the misleading extended titles of books. This book unravels a mystery and comes as close to the truth about John Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland as is possible given his extraordinary efforts to conceal it.
By: Christopher SilvesterPublished: Fri, November 23, 2012 in Express / http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/books/360040/Book-review-The-Secret-Rooms-A-True-Gothic-Mystery-by-Catherine-Bailey
However, apart from the setting in Belvoir Castle, the vague presence of a family curse and the Duke’s secret obsession, this “Gothic” tale lacks horror, madness and violence.
Instead, Catherine Bailey has produced a fine, suspenseful, atmospheric tale of how she unearthed shameful aspects of an aristocratic family’s past.
When the colours were raised in 1914, 1,700 men from the Belvoir estate in Leicestershire, which encompassed several villages, volunteered to fight, the 8th Duke’s heir among them.
In return for this fulfilment of duty their situations would be kept open for them, their families would live rent-free in their tied cottages for the duration and their dependants would receive their wages (less their army pay).
Many of them joined the same regiment, the 4th Leicesters, in which 28-year-old John held the rank of lieutenant, and of which his father and earlier dukes of Rutland had been honorary colonel. Of the 1,700 men who enlisted 250 lost their lives. Bailey’s original intention had been to follow the lives of all volunteers from the presumptive ducal heir downwards.
The 4th Leicesters were drafted into the Ypres Salient, in Belgium, where a prolonged battle was taking place. John kept a fairly detailed diary up until the beginning of July 1915, when his entries ceased. Bailey was puzzled to discover this.
She also found that all family correspondence from the second half of 1915 had either gone missing or had been weeded out.
The most likely culprit was John himself, an otherwise decent man who had spent the last few years of his life reclusively inhabiting the five gloomy and incommodious Muniment Rooms of Belvoir Castle, to which servants were denied access.
There he devoted himself to collating and cataloguing the Manners family’s voluminous correspondence, private documents and household accounts going back several centuries. And there he died of pneumonia in 1940, lying on a lumpy old sofa.
The curious matter of the missing correspondence set Bailey on an entirely different quest and we accompany her as she exposes the family’s secrets.
Here be a monster, certainly, though not of the conventional Gothic kind. Violet, Duchess of Rutland, John’s mother, was a controlling, manipulative, and slightly sinister matriarch: a nastier version of that other Violet, Downton Abbey’s Dowager Duchess of Grantham (played by Maggie Smith).
She once declared that she would rather John had died in battle or that his sister Lady Diana Manners had cancer than that Diana should marry Duff Cooper, a mere career diplomat with an income of £300 a year
The Manners family faced an existential threat in 1915. Were the ducal heir presumptive to be killed in the trenches his mother and sisters would have been rendered penniless by the rules of entail, since both his title and estate would have passed to his half-brother Cecil, a confirmed bachelor with no heirs.
Violet acted with exemplary ruthlessness in securing the family line. Lady Diana Manners, who would become a leading social figure between the wars, was enlisted in the conspiracy in a seemingly appalling way. John survived to marry and father five children, including three sons, but he was made to sacrifice a part of his soul in the process.
Some readers might think the secrets too modestly shocking but if you have the patience for a less melodramatic and more nuanced Downton Abbey then this excellent work of family history will work for you.
On 25 November 1882 Violet Lindsay married, at St George's, Hanover Square, London, Henry John Brinsley Manners (1852–1925), who in 1888 became Marquess of Granby (making her Lady Granby), and in 1906 succeeded his father as 8th Duke of Rutland (with her as Duchess of Rutland). The pair were opposites – Manners was handsome in a conventional way, Conservative, aristocratic, and with more interest in hunting and the chorus line at the theatre than in the arts, whereas she was seen as beautiful and bohemian – and, though she gave birth to one daughter and two sons (Lord Haddon, and another) to guarantee his title's succession, Violet looked outside the marriage for comfort. Disraeli's former private secretary, Montague Corry, 1st Baron Rowton (1838–1903) apparently fathered her second daughter, Violet (Letty), and Harry Cust (aka Henry John Cockayne, 1861–1917) the third, Diana.(later Diana Duff Cooper)
However, her eldest son's death at the age of nine in 1894 devastated her, and she poured her grief into producing his tomb sculptures herself. The plaster cast for this work – her son, reclining on an elaborate base decorated with relief portraits of his mother's family – was considered by her as her best work. (She kept it in her London house until – a month before she died – it was accepted by the Tate Gallery). Her other son at least survived the slaughter of World War I (being kept away from the front, and marrying into another Souls family), though her daughter Violet's husband, Hugo Francis Charteris, Lord Elcho (born on 28 December 1884), was killed in the Egyptian campaign on 23 April 1916, and most of her daughter Diana's friends and suitors died on the western front.
A Norman castle originally stood on the high ground in this spot. During the English Civil War, it was one of the more notable strongholds of the king's supporters. It eventually passed into the hands of the Dukes of Rutland and following a fire, was rebuilt by the wife of the 5th Duke, and gained its present Gothic castle look. The architect James Wyatt was chiefly responsible for this restructuring, and the result is a building which bears a superficial resemblance to a medieval castle, its central tower reminiscent of Windsor Castle. The present Castle is the fourth building to have stood on the site since Norman times.
Belvoir was a royal manor until it was granted to Robert, 1st baron de Ros in 1257. When that family died out in 1508, the manor and castle passed to George Manners, who inherited the castle and barony through his mother. His son was created Earl of Rutland in 1525, and John Manners, 9th Earl of Rutland was created Duke of Rutland in 1703. So Belvoir castle has been the home of the Manners family for five hundred years, and seat of the Dukes of Rutland for over three centuries.
Whilst visiting Belvoir castle in the 1840s Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford found that the normal time for dinner was between 7:00 and 8:30 p.m. An extra meal called luncheon had been created to fill the midday gap between breakfast and dinner, but as this new meal was very light, the long afternoon with no refreshment at all left people feeling hungry. She found a light meal of tea (usually Darjeeling) and cakes or sandwiches was the perfect balance. The Duchess found taking an afternoon snack to be such a perfect refreshment that she soon began inviting her friends to join her. Afternoon tea quickly became an established and convivial repast in many middle and upper class households.
The castle is open to the public and contains many works of art. The Queen's Royal Lancers Regimental Museum of the 17th and 21st Lancers was established here in 1964 but was required to leave in October 2007. The highlights of the tour are the lavish staterooms, the most famous being the Elizabeth Saloon (named after the wife of the 5th Duke), the Regents Gallery and the Roman inspired State Dining Room.