Historian Catherine Bailey arrived at Belvoir Castle in the summer of 2008 to research a book on the effect of World War I on the Belvoir estate, which belonged to the Duke of Rutland. Some 1,700 men, at the urging of the then Duke, joined up. Of those, 249 died. The extensive papers held in the Muniment Rooms at Belvoir had rarely been examined, and offered a detailed look at one of the great social upheavals of the twentieth century.
The Secret Rooms, though, is not the book that Bailey started out writing. It became apparent that despite the rich and comprehensive nature of the documents she found at Belvoir, there were strange gaps. It seemed that John, the 9th Duke of Rutland, had spent his dying days in the Muniment Rooms destroying papers. What, Bailey wondered, could have been so important to him that, desperately ill with pneumonia, he spent his last hours in the dusty, damp rooms erasing its traces?
This is a complex story, weaving back and forth in time, and Bailey controls her narrative admirably. We shift from her present-day impressions to the tragic story of the early death of young Lord Haddon, the heir to the 8th Duke, and from the grim days of 1940 when England was bracing for invasion to the equally grim days of World War I when the nature of industrial warfare first became clear. The focus is always the gap in the documentation: Duke John’s letters and journals from a crucial period in 1915. What could he have been hiding?
I won’t give away the secret, but it’s startling, and Duke John’s mother, the lovely Duchess Violet, doesn’t come out of the tale with a great deal of credit. Her daughter, John’s sister Lady Diana, the legendary beauty of the 1920s, plays a small but dramatic part in the tale. But maybe the tail is wagging the dog in this book — for all of Bailey’s buildup, the exposed secret doesn’t seem quite as momentous as it ought to. John’s character doesn’t emerge fully enough for us to understand why his actions in 1916 were corrosive enough to make him end up the way he did. But if you can overlook a slight sense of letdown, The Secret Rooms offers a vivid and fascinating view of life among the grandees during World War I and the years following.
Hmmm. Wonder who would want to read that?