28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on 28 October 2013
One cannot deny that this is a major work in terms of research. I shudder to think how many untold hours the author must have spent in digging through records and old letters. However, it seems to me that she is guilty of several things. One is the wildly changing styles adopted throughout the book; sometimes the author addresses us directly in the first person, then swerves into a kind of over-florid "faction" style as she narrates in the third person. This is irritating. The second is that there is an awful lot of padding. When writing a book of this kind, it is often not what you put in but what you leave out that is most important. Bailey leaves absolutely nothing out - nothing. The story gets bogged down in lots of unnecessary detail which is not needed to advance the story and which could have been excised; all this achieves is a lack of clarity and awfully dull patches where there is simply much more information than the reader needs. The premise of the book is also wildly over-optimistic; the "mystery" is so hyped that the reader is deceived into thinking that the solution is murder or the theft of the Crown Jewels at the very least. And it turns out to be nothing remarkably earth shattering. Certainly nothing to warrant calling it a "true gothic mystery". The "secret" rooms are not even secret! Several of the minor "mysteries" are never resolved - we never find out the reason for the break-in to the castle committed by a woman disguised as a man, and we never find out the true reason for Haddon's death. Neither, strangely, are any reactions of the current Duke of Rutland's family explored when the "secret" comes out.
I suppose it is a demonstration of Bailey's skill as a researcher and writer that, despite all these caveats, the book races along like a rollercoaster (for the most part) and is (again, for the most part) extremely readable. But its over-long, over-researched, over-laden with too much unnecessary detail and, ultimately, very underwhelming.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Catherine Bailey, intent on writing a book about villages affected World War I, visited Belvoir Castle to investigate the extensive archives kept by the ninth duke, John Manners. To her dismay, she found that John's journal abruptly ended in June 1914, just when his unit was about to enter the fighting. When she read his correspondence, she found the same gap, and on further investigation, found three complete gaps in otherwise comprehensive archives. She was so curious that she kept looking and the result was this book, a mystery unwinding into a fascinating picture of a still-privileged aristocracy hovering on the brink of change.
This is a book that actually took me by surprise. I'd read the first few pages a while back and didn't feel compelled to continue. I have to be in a certain kind of a mood for a mystery, and I never felt that the time was right. When I finally did persevere, though, I found an absolute gem of a book. There are actually 3 mysteries, which are the gaps in John's life, and Bailey does an excellent job of keeping the reader wondering about what's happened while slowly revealing a picture of an aristocratic family which simply no longer exists.
The book is structured with chapters that are fairly short. A number of them end in cliffhangers, so that as a reader I was compelled to go on and read more to see what the author would find next; I actually read most of the book on a train and it was the perfect distraction to make a long journey seem much shorter. More than waiting to find out the mysteries, though, I was fascinated by the world which Bailey revealed. John's life, and that of his parents and siblings, is still full of aristocratic excess, but crisis and change is very clearly on the horizon. When he is young, his family is virtually untouchable, yet by the time the first World War is over, this world is simply gone.
The amount of influence the family has - and believes they have - is incredible, and some of the strings pulled to get some of the events in the book to happen are almost difficult to believe now. Bailey quotes copiously from the letters and journals she finds, which helped me feel like I was digging through the archives with her. The way she slowly reveals John's character and the events that shaped his life gave a feel for how she must have experienced the unveiling of his character; overall I thought it was an excellent way to keep me invested and reading. It's also worth mentioning that this is a really quick and easy read for non-fiction; Bailey's writing is smooth and easy to read, and her detective story makes the book feel like it could be fiction.
I'd definitely recommend The Secret Rooms and now I'm eager to read Bailey's first book, Black Diamonds, too.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Catherine Bailey goes to Belvoir Castle, seat of the Dukes of Rutland, intending to research a book about the men from the village who went to fight in the first world war. Once there, however, she uncovers a mysterious gap in the diary of John, the 9th Duke, one which is duplicated in the family letters, and which stretches from July to December 1915. And it's not the only enigmatic silence in the family history - meticulously following the traces of subterfuge and privilege, Bailey uncovers a story of shame that the family tried to hide.
I enjoyed this book but I did find the writing style a little irritating: Bailey makes herself the heroine of the tale and her interpolations ("and then it struck me...") began to grate more as the book progressed.
That said, this is an intriguing story, and I was particularly gripped by the war sections set in the trenches of France and Belgium. The tale of a real-life quest to uncover dark family secrets (though it's not the `gothic mystery' of the cover), this is an absorbing read.
40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
'The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery' by Catherine Bailey is a fascinating tale of secrets that were hidden for a very long time. Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire is home to the Duke and Duchess of Rutland, and their family. Catherine (the author) wanted access to the Castle documents in order to write a book about the contributions of the local people to World War 1. In researching for her book, she uncovered a mystery of long-standing. The story reveals exactly how different were the lives of the privileged. Favours could be called in, money could change hands, and Mothers could use their position to ensure that their children were safe. Violet is the Duchess of Rutland at the time, and her scheming is quite appalling! She is prepared to lie, cheat, and use her children to gain what she wants, no matter what the price that has to be paid. She feels that she is doing the 'right' thing, but the repercussions on John, her son are immense.
I found it quite disturbing that Violet was able to impact on John's life in such a way, but I suppose that is the difference between the upper and lower echelons of society - it's not what you know, but WHO you know. This book was excellent, very readable, really well researched, and fascinating to me. Highly recommended.
45 of 50 people found the following review helpful
Catherine Bailey, following on from her success with "Black Diamonds:The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty," has created a fascinating and compelling story which she initially started as research into the archives at Belvoir Castle about how ordinary peoples lives who worked on the estate had been affected by World War I. The author painstakingly explored the thousands of letters in a suite of rooms which had been sealed after the death of the ninth Earl of Rutland.
That discovery set her on a different track altogether and posed a set of questions about why the ninth Duke had spent part of his life in these 'secret rooms' which were sparse in comparison to the opulence in the castles main areas.
The book reads rather like a detective novel and could easily have been the basis of a story from Wilkie Collins as the tale gives family intrigue, scheming, and 'skeletons in the cupboard.'
I enjoyed Catherine Bailey's writing style, which gave the narrative pace and her construction of secrets and parts of the jigsaw being revealed until the whole picture is complete was a successful one.
The story is many things wrapped into one, "author discovers hidden family secrets," and a highly readable tale of privilege, power, deceit and mystery. Recommended.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 1 September 2013
Having visited Belvoir Castle many times (well worth a visit) I found this book really brought the castle to life and painted a tangible picture of the aristocracy there and elsewhere around the turn of the 19th/20th century. Whilst revealing and exposing the 'darker' and hideously selfish side of English tradition, hierarchy and politics at this time, it sadly didn't prove to be so shocking, but more despicable. Having recently published my grandfather's memoirs from WWI ('Wal's War' - available from blurb.com - which also includes letters between him and his mother to and from the Front, vastly different to those between John and Violet!!) - those of a shy, humble and unassuming, ordinary man (a postal worker) - the contrast between his experiences and those of the aristocrats 'serving' in the war is stark and shameful. And yet, I found myself deliciously drawn into the mediocrity of daily life for those so privileged through inheritance. I could really feel the excitement Catherine Bailey must have felt as she cleverly pulled together the implications from the various pieces of the puzzle - many of them missing completely. What is so amazing is the vast number of diaries kept and letters that were written back and forth and so incredible that such history has been preserved over centuries it would seem. What is sad (or perhaps a relief for some!) is that all of our 21st century correspondence - emails and postings made on the internet - will vanish into the ether over time and we will never be able to readily put our hands on such valuable, day to day records in a hundred years from now. I have given this a 4 rather than a 5 rating only because I felt slightly let down at the end with the final weak-mindedness that explains why things had happened the way they had - and deeply disappointed, as John Manners himself so rightly felt. Couldn't put the book down though and highly recommend it for a good read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
In 2008 author and historian Catherine Bailey went to the ancestral home, Belvoir Castle, of the Dukes of Rutland to look into the service of estate workers and effects due to The Great War. She was given access to papers that had been locked away since the death of the 9th Duke in 1940, and she quickly realised these had been tampered with to leave mysterious gaps in the archives. She went on to investigate further sources in an attempt explain why records were incomplete for 3 periods in the 9th Duke's life - first around 8 years of age on the death of his elder brother, then in his early twenties when he was with the British Embassy in Rome, and finally during World War I. `The Secret Rooms' may be described as a quest for truth.
The 9th Duke had painstakingly catalogued family papers and along with other evidence these were scrutinized and analysed forensically by Catherine Bailey. There were thousands of letters and documents covering hundreds of years, and initially this seemed almost implausibly fictitious. When writing reviews of non-fiction books it is in order to give an indication of contents as opposed to how this would be spoiling for fiction. It is in order to divulge the first gap in records is accounted for with reference to concealed cause of his brother's death, the second is linked to attempted fraud by his father, and the third to shenanigans surrounding his war service. Publicity blurb description of `A True Gothic Mystery' is somewhat overstated as for example the 9th Duke's absence from the Western Front would be a matter of public record, and apart from the turrets and battlements of Belvoir Castle there is not anything really `gothic' about `The Secret Rooms'. However the intriguing story is well told and is clearly based on meticulous research.
A family tree of the Dukes of Rutland is incorporated from the late 18th century to the present day, though `The Secret Rooms' concentrates on the 8th Duke Henry, his wife Violet plus her brother Charles, and the 9th Duke John plus his wife Kathleen. A degree of speculation and conjecture is inevitable yet these are real people, and even though narrative reads like a mystery novel or detective story it embraces real events and real experiences. Some wicked personalities, bizarre relationships and devious behaviour are exposed with political chicanery alongside conspiracy, collusion and manoeuvring amongst the family. Much of the double standards and hypocritical conduct is incomprehensible without Catherine Bailey's revelations regarding the power and influence of the aristocracy at the time together with the horrifying arrogance and callous nature of the upper class officers of the British army. With additional insights to the sheer extravagance and opulence of the old English ruling class and the leverage of new American billionaires `The Secret Rooms' is as much a general historical study of subterfuge as it is a specific unveiling of secrets.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 3 January 2014
I had watched this book in the WW1 charts with my own for many a month, yet was intrigued that the WW1 connection was not obvious from the cover/title. Curiosity won and I purchased.
The missing war years and 'mystery' are well researched and written, although the final reveal is long drawn out, bathetic and a bit 'so what'. But the other two periods expunged from the Duke's archives are left as unresolved - and the connection between all 3 missing periods is tenuous or unresolved - especially Haddon's death - or perhaps unresolvable with the info available. While it may have explained the measures taken by the family in 1915, why was John so keen to wipe out the memory (there is a final hint at the end, but,...)
When the book gets going it is a cracking yarn of detective discovery and very readable. It needs more editing as there are occasional repetitions of passages word-for-word even within chapters. The overuse of rather melodramatic house characters and pathetic fallacy with weather descriptions slows the early book and would be best trimmed.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 14 March 2013
This was well written and readable. I enjoyed reading about the research the author undertook on the family. I did however feel that she over egged the mystery pudding. Several family secrets are easily guessable and the central mystery, which I will not reveal in case it spoils another readers enjoyment is not so shaming in the context of the level of society the family lived in, look at the war record of the future King George vi in WW1 it is quite similar.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 9 May 2013
From the moment I began to read this I found myself looking for available moments to keep on reading. The research behind it is remarkable and the revelations that ensue carry the reader on - a real page-turner. It is a story that, if it was fiction, one might think over the top. Yet this true story of a strange aristocratic family is wholly absorbing. I congratulate Catherine Bailey - this is the best book I have read in a long time.