The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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January 23, 2014

Found on a blog: The Secret Rooms

My plans to curl up with a book about jam-making :) changed when another book I had been waiting for -- an unrenewable one -- also came in at the library.  Catherine Bailey's The Secret Rooms:  A True Story of a Haunted Castle, A Plotting Duchess & A Family Secret sounded more Downton Abbey-esque, anyway, and it was as entertaining as the title suggested it would be. {I found out about this book on Lyn's wonderful blog, I Prefer Reading, and put it on reserve about five seconds later. At the time, I was waiting for the college library's copy of the UK edition, but it has also just been published here, maybe on Downton Abbey's coattails?}

When the author visits Belvoir Castle, a historic English ancestral home, to research a book about the lives of soldiers in World War I, she comes across an odd story about the death of John Henry Montagu Manners, 9th Duke of Rutland, in 1940.  For several days before he died from a respiratory illness, he continued working feverishly on the family papers he kept in the castle's Muniments Room, a warren of storerooms in the servants' wing.  Even though his wife had called in the King's doctor to see him, the Duke's valet, Mr. Green, kept the doctor waiting in the hallway, insisting that the Duke had something he need to finish first. After John's death, his son sealed the rooms, leaving them closed for decades. The other telling event is that at the onset of World War II, the British government had reluctantly agreed -- at the Duke's urging -- to use the castle as a safe haven for boxes and boxes of government archives removed from London in anticipation of what would soon happen there.

Bailey discovers that the 9th Duke has made a life's work out of organizing his family's archives, and that in contrast to his usually meticulous cataloging, there are mysterious gaps -- no letters, diary entries, or scrapbooks -- for three periods in his life:  when he was a young boy, when he was a young diplomat in Rome, and for several months during his service in World War I. Most of the book focuses on her efforts to unravel what had happened during those months that would make him want, or need, to erase any mention of them.  It would be a spoiler to tell you what she discovers,  although before we get too far into the book, we find out what has been concealed. The loss of suspense was made up for, for me at least, by the chance to meet the Duchess {another Violet}: the Duke's mother, an artist and at one time a beauty, and the kind of wonderfully horrible character I always hope to find in a book like this. :)  ('Now approaching her late fifties, Violet had only her charm -- and her position -- to fall back on. The former, when she chose to deploy it, was considerable:  'I had a letter from Violet Rutland on Saturday that really would have melted one, if one were not so convinced of her evil character and falseness,' Lady Desborough reported to a friend.')

I also enjoyed some chapters in the middle of the book, when the author offered some fascinating descriptions of what it was like to live in a stately home like this one at the turn of the century. {The book not only has a family tree, but it has floor plans! :) } She also explained some of the reasons why titled, land-rich British aristocrats were in such desperate financial straits at the turn of the last century {a depression in the farming industry, death duties, and a reformist government's plan to 'wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness' by imposing new taxes on the rich}, and why the Duchess' protectiveness for her son and her ambitions for his marriage were as much about preserving rank and status, a view of the family's place in the world that was in force in her husband Henry's time, as they were about anything else.

In 1899, the castle had a groom of chambers, a house steward, an usher of the hall, a chef, a pastry chef. a confectioner, a plate butler, a clock butler, a steward's room boy -- and housemaids, kitchen maids, scullery maids, footmen, odd-job men, and porters galore. These were just the indoor servants. In the castle's grounds, there were hundreds more:  grooms, stable lads. dairy maids, studmen, brewers, rat catchers, mole catchers, millers, mechanics, gardeners, groundsmen, gamekeepers, river keepers, huntsmen, kennelmen, slaughtermen, stockmen, horsemen, farm hands and woodsmen.
      The vast establishment, paid for largely with borrowed money, revolved around just one person:  Henry's father, the elderly John Manners, 7th Duke of Rutland. ...
      After serving in three Tory cabinets as Postmaster General and Chancellor to the Duchy of Lancaster, the Duke had retreated to Belvoir.  His life there was sybaritic and self-regarding; from Diana's  description of his daily routine, the tenue Henry was keeping for his father served no other purpose beyond being -- and being seen to be -- a Duke.

The descriptions that follow -- of the Duke's daughters reminding him in baby-talk to ring a bell after lunch to call for his horse {'Perfection round at a quarter before three, if you please!'}, or of the Duke riding his 'snow-white and very fat and quiet' horse accompanied by his private chaplain and a groom 'liveried in blue and buttoned in silver, top-hatted and cockaded'; or,  of other days, when 'a lengthy discussion ... would be carried on between him, some aunts and the groom of the chambers as whether it was to be the landau, the Victoria or the barouche that should be used for the drive,' or of the entire family accompanying the Duke on forced marches around the estate on rainy afternoons -- are funny, and meant to be, but there is such a strong, horribly fascinating undercurrent of neglect, manipulation, deception, and cruelty in this family's story that it's hard to enjoy them for long.

{We're also introduced to the Duke's youngest sister, Lady Diana, who became a leading society beauty in the 1920s. It's only mentioned in passing that they are half-siblings. I'd heard of her before, and  I'm already looking forward to reading more about her in a biography or her memoirs.}

The writing is a little overdone, sometimes ('The soft light of the candelabra, the rich tones of the Old Masters paintings, the glint of cold and crystal, accentuated the grim expressions on their faces,' and so on).   The author also makes what felt to me like a too-visible effort to create suspense as she moves toward solving the mystery. It wasn't really how she found things out, or what she uncovers, that made me look forward to the next chapter -- it was the people involved, and what they did for, and to each other.

{Photos of the Duchess and Lady Diana found here. The picture of John,
at his wedding in 1916, is from the book.}

 . . . . . . . . .

'Found on a blog' is a label for books that I discover by reading your wonderful blogs. I try to keep track, before I read them, but I thought I would also like to say thanks this way.


lyn said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it & thank you for the kind words about my blog. I also felt CB milked the suspense a little but I read it so quickly that it didn't really bother me. Violet was a true monster, wasn't she? Lady Diana wrote three vols of memoirs & her letters to her son, the biographer John Julius Norwich, have recently been published. The title of the book is Dear Monster - it's affectionate, I think.I'd also like to read them. The letters were found by him in an attic, so sometimes cliches really are true.

JoAnn said...

A family tree AND floor plans?? You've sold me :-)

Lisa said...

I was thinking the same as JoAnn, though I'd also add the wicked dowager duchess as an incentive.

Cosy Books said...

Oh darn it all, we don't carry this book at my library but it does sound like perfect reading for a snowy Saturday.

I've been meaning to ask you, Audrey, to recommend a favourite mystery series. A customer at the library yesterday really likes the Charlotte & Thomas (Anne Perry) series. What say you?

Audrey said...

Hi, Darlene... I like that series myself! -- She also writes one set a little earlier in the 19th century, about William and Hester Monk. Imogen Robertson is also very good (another historical series), and as for the modern ones, I'm kind of in love with Louise Penny's Armand Gamache.

Karen K. said...

I read this last summer -- I belong to an online group and everyone was raving about it. I thought the beginning was incredibly intriguing but the suspense didn't really last. However, his mother was pretty monstrous. It's always so fascinating to read about the truly dysfunctional families.

Thank you for visiting!

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