The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret

by Catherine Bailey

Paperback, 2013




Penguin Books (2013), Edition: Illustrated, 512 pages


For fans of Downton Abbey: the enthralling true story of family secrets and aristocratic intrigue in the days before WWI. After the Ninth Duke of Rutland, one of the wealthiest men in Britain, died alone in a cramped room in the servants' quarters of Belvoir Castle on April 21, 1940, his son and heir ordered the room, which contained the Rutland family archives, sealed. Sixty years later, Catherine Bailey became the first historian given access. What she discovered was a mystery: the Duke had painstakingly erased three periods of his life from all family records-but why? As Bailey uncovers the answers, she also provides an intimate portrait of the very top of British society in the turbulent days leading up to World War I"--


½ (120 ratings; 3.7)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Bookmarque
This may end up one of the best books I read all year. Not only did Catherine Bailey find a fascinating mystery to solve, but the way she writes is very good. She intersperses questions that went through her mind and hooks to answers she found, but isn’t ready to reveal. If she hadn’t done
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that, the mystery itself would have probably been interesting enough to carry the book, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed the tale so much. She also does a great job of balancing expository information and clues and advancements in the tale. That way we readers (especially non-British subjects) understand context and import of why what she found was so astonishing (or didn’t find in some cases).

Having watched a couple seasons of Downton Abbey, I can see definite similarities and wonder if a little of Belvoir is in the mix for the show. The allure of that vanished way of life is intensely appealing in a lot of ways. To have that much money, privilege and power is astonishing in this day and age. In some ways I am saddened that the English economy and socio-political structure collapsed, shutting it down entirely, but it had to happen. Luckily many large estates still survive, if in a shrunken state.

I won’t get into specifics because it’s better to read this one without knowing too many of the turning points ahead of time, but not all of the 3 central secrets are totally solved. Haddon’s death (don’t worry that detail comes early) is still shrouded in lies and euphemisms. For it and the other secrets, my mind ran away with me hard down the road of speculation. Much of what I suspected didn’t turn out to be true, but it was fun to guess and reformulate based on a new item uncovered by the writer.

The lengths that Violet goes to are extreme and lays her psyche open pretty well. She was so indulged her whole life that any and all thoughts, actions or approaches were automatically sanctioned not only by her, but by everyone around her. The result is a thoroughly self-centered and ruthless person. Cruelty, lies, manipulation, whatever it took to keep Violet feeling in control and able to stay safely away from what hurt her was on the table. Despite her circumstances, I think she was in denial a lot of the time. What was baffling was her intense efforts on John’s behalf in the latter half of his life after virtually ignoring him for the first half. In this day and age, the family’s treatment of John could be construed as abuse; certainly neglect. Emotionally he was left out to dry and it’s no wonder that the became a solitary, bookish person rather than the social powerhouse his new role as eldest son required of him. I don’t know if he ever settled to his fate, but in the end he took steps to try to erase the unseemly parts of his legacy. Lucky for us he didn’t entirely succeed.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
Yet another reason why I don't settle on my top books of the year until the very last minute: I've just finished Catherine Bailey's The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess & a Family Secret (Penguin, 2013), and it will certainly end up making the list of my favorite
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books for this year.

Bailey was given access to the family archives of the Dukes of Rutland, held at Belvoir Castle, the family seat. The archives had been basically locked up in their rooms from the time of the death of the 9th Duke in 1940 until the early part of this century, and Bailey was one of the first historians permitted access. She'd intended to write quite a different book, one about the experiences of the men of Belvoir and the surrounding estates during World War I, but when she began exploring the archives she found the story she tells here, and determined to recount that instead. We should be very glad she did.

The 9th Duke spent the final years of his life closeted away in the rooms where the archives were kept, and in fact even died there, on a small couch, surrounded by the family papers. When Bailey began her search, she quickly found that the 9th Duke's motives had not been entirely pure of heart: he had created three very precise, but very thorough, gaps in the archival record by removing all the correspondence and papers for those date ranges. Bailey set out to discover just what happened during those periods, and that hunt forms the basic structure for the book. What she finds is a tale of real family drama and somewhat shocking behavior on the part of a good number of people.

I had a terrible time putting this down once I started reading. Bailey's account of her efforts to puzzle out the events of those three mysterious periods makes for riveting reading, and it's really a pleasure to dig into her own research process and methods ... not to mention all the fascinating things she manages to learn. I'm not going to share any of those here: go off and read the book.

This is not, I admit, a perfect book. The title and subtitle are slightly overdrawn (except for the "plotting duchess and a family secret" part), and not only do some questions remain unanswered, but there are also certain points that just prove unsatisfying or anticlimactic. But on the whole, I found this a tremendously interesting book, and recommend it highly.
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LibraryThing member lexieconyngham
I wanted to give this 3.5 and it took me a while to decide which way to go. It's a true story: Catherine Bailey went to Belvoir to do research on the estate workers who left in droves to fight in the First World War, and ended up pursuing instead a mystery concerning gaps in the family archives and
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the circumstances of the death of one of the Dukes of Rutland. As it's a real story, not all the loose ends are tied up. There are few sympathetic characters in the tale, and I found the style of narrative a little irritating: she is, I suppose inevitably, an intrusive narrator and the book is as much about her investigation as it is about the family history itself. Her descriptions were stiff but again, she had to struggle with the contrast between the facts she had learned and the scenes she was picturing and to an extent inventing for herself. The story turned out to have many depressing aspects and at some points I struggled to make myself read on. However, it is well-researched. I've also had her earlier book, Black Diamonds, recommended to me, but I can't quite bring myself to start it just yet.
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LibraryThing member cathyskye
Catherine Bailey kept me glued to the page throughout two-thirds of this book. When she first entered the Muniment Rooms of Belvoir Castle, I was flabbergasted as she began telling of all the historical documents the ninth duke had amassed, and how he had organized and cataloged them. The discovery
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of the three missing periods during his life led to a fascinating recounting of how she managed to fill in the blanks. Touted as a book for fans of "Downton Abbey," I would not disagree because The Secret Rooms tells much of aristocratic life in Britain before and during the First World War. But this book is more than an historical accounting of a great family; it has much to share of a psychological nature as Bailey exposes secrets the family wanted to remain hidden. (The ninth duke was so successful that the current duke had no clue of what the author discovered.)

It's not my place to divulge what those secrets were, but in the unveiling of the one involving the first year of the war, I felt the author went off the rails a bit. Once the reader knows what was hidden, why, and who was responsible, Bailey goes into minute detail over each fact that she discovered and how it was discovered. Instead of making me feel outrage and sorrow at what was done, I soon became impatient and my enthusiasm for the book as a whole began to wane from its original high. Two-thirds of The Secret Rooms is fascinating,and I'm glad I read it, but that final third does drag a bit.
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LibraryThing member drmaf
A story so bizarre it reads like fiction, yet it's completely factual. In 1940, John Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland, died at home at Belvoir Castle, the family's massive ancestral seat. Yet, with literally hundreds of luxurious rooms to choose from, the Duke chose to live and die in a bare set of
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rooms within the servants' quarters. Up to the last hours of his life he was frantically engaged in editing the family correspondence trying to remove all trace of a period during the First World War. Upon his death, his son and and successor ordered the rooms closed up, and they remained locked away for more than 60 years. Then Bailey, then a TV producer, came to the house to do research on those workers on the estate who served in WWI. She discovered the mysterious gap in the records and spent years digging up the truth as to why the Duke was so desperate to cover up that period in his family history. This is a story that has to be read to be believed, literally. Those of a republican bent who believe the nobility are degenerate, inbred fossils from a bygone era, will probably have their views fully confirmed. It will also appeal to those who fancy a real-life Downton Abbey story. But those who just enjoy a real-life historical mystery will also relish this book. Bailey's determination to root out the truth against all obstacles is truly absorbing, and although the book occasionally becomes bogged down in a welter of aristocratic names and titles, it remains spellbinding up to the end. Absolutely fascinating stuff.
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LibraryThing member devenish
Historian and writer Catherine Bailey came to Belvoir Castle,home of the Dukes of Rutland originally to research the history of the family. She was shown the vast amount of letters and records which were stored in the five muniment rooms of the castle. As she read her way through these,she
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discovered a far more interesting story than the one she had begun to study.
The story of John,the 9th Duke was one of mystery and intrigue and one which Bailey began to follow with increasing interest. He died,virtually alone,living his final days in the five damp and bare muniment rooms surrounded by private letters. These family letters had,Bailey discovered,had three distinct gaps which she determined to fill. Two of these (his war-time letters and the later ones,) she solves and explains well) The third,those concerning the death of his brother,is left virtually unexplained.
Overall a good,solid piece of work which is well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member kraaivrouw
I wanted to like The Secret Rooms a lot more than I did. The promise of a gothic mystery and scandalous tales of the upper crust spurred me on, but I just didn't care all that much about the Duke and I didn't find the story very interesting because he wasn't all that interesting to me. I wanted
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more of the glamour and dazzle of his sister, Lady Diana Cooper, and found instead a sad man locked up in a room trying to make himself and his life go away.

It's difficult to review this without spoilers so I won't go into much detail, but suffice it to say that the Lord of Rutland's parents were pretty horrific and the secrets he spent so much time keeping were painful ones. Ms. Bailey does meticulous research and the inclusion of information from many letters really capture the time, its attitudes, and the people living through them. The mystery cuts all the through many of the most interesting times in twentieth century history and the story of the pursuit of the documents in a good one.

Not my cup of tea, but a good read if you're interested in life in a big English country house during the Edwardian period and throughout World War I.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
When Catherine Bailey goes to Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, it was with the intention of writing a book about the impact of World War I, on the Duke of Rutland's estate. Let into rooms that had been closed, the 9th Duke having died in them, she finds a treasure trove of letters and other
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historical documents, she also finds a mystery. Certain time frames have had all letters and documents from all members of the family excised. The mystery of why is too much to ignore and so the focus of her book changes.

It was very interesting following her as she attempts to piece together the why of the missing documents. Loved following her mind as she makes, at first small, and then larger discoveries. The dukes remaining letters create a vivid picture of the lives and morals of the very top of Edwardian society. From a tragic happening in his youth, to his enlistment in World War I, and his marriage we get a clear glimpse of what life was like for this Duke. Speaking of dysfunctional families, this family had it all. His mother the Duchess was a major=r piece of work, and his father not much better. I did understand and excuse certain things about his father, because he was under enormous pressure to keep up appearances and the large family estate together at a time when all fortunes were declining.

The letters detailing his life in the war and the reason he did not go to the front, were very illuminating. From other letters in his possession and the facts uncovered by the author we get a horrifying look at the War, the battle of Ypres, and the major cost of lives on this estate alone. Over two hundred young and older men would die in the war.

IF I have one complaint I think a few of these letters could have been kept out without a detrimental effect on the story, they sometimes just seemed like overkill. All in all though this is a solid look at lives of the last few Dukes of Rutland and the uncovering of a mystery that was 1/2 century in the making. Also loved that the author doesn't just end the book but lets us know the fate of all the leading players. Very solid and interesting historical.
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
The eighth Duke of Rutland a member of the long established gentry of England has a terminal illness. Instead of trying to enjoy some final pleasures he locks himself up and sets about destroying a some of a large cache of family correspondence. Why the urgency? Enter Catherine Bailey whose dogged
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research exposes the family skeletons that the Duke is frantically trying to destroy. This is a non fiction book that reads like a mystery novel and I mean that in a complimentary sense. I look forward to reading it at each sitting. It is a fascinating read especially in terms of family dynamics.
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LibraryThing member melydia
When the Duke of Rutland died in his study in 1940, his son ordered the rooms sealed. Bailey, one of the first historians allowed in, had intended to use the Duke's meticulous record keeping to aid in a book about the experiences of the locals during World War I. What she found was three specific
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periods of time carefully excised from the record. This book is about her search for what happened during those times, and why he took such pains to hide it. For the most part, all is revealed. I found it much more interesting than I'd expected. There aren't any grisly murders or anything truly sensational hidden in those lost months, but the aristocratic intrigue was fun to detangle. Fans of Downton Abbey would probably enjoy this, as it takes place during the same time period (the 1910s).
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LibraryThing member briandrewz
This was an absolutely riveting read. Admittedly, the first half is better than the second half. As I began to read this book, I couldn't stop turning the pages. I just had to see what happened next. This is not a novel or historical fiction. It's fact. Though I'm not sure about the haunted castle
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part, the plotting duchess and the family secret are absolutely spot on. Anyone who loves a good mystery will enjoy this book.
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LibraryThing member terran
There is a lot to wade through in this book. It is well written and a fascinating look at the immense amount of research the author did to solve the mysteries involved. Even more so, it provides great insight into the lives and machinations among the English aristocracy in the early 20th century.
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Most of the focus is on the details of the research and not on characters, but I liked the mystery-solving aspects.
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LibraryThing member Stromata
There are probably a limited number of works of non fiction which one can consider a ‘page turner’, but Catherine Bailey has managed to produce a book which is both a compelling read and an insight into late 19th and early 20th century British aristocracy. Intending to use the archives of the
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Manners family, held at Belvoir Castle, for research into the impact of the 1914-18 war on Belvoir’s estate workers, she discovered three very specific gaps in the records, which, whilst preventing their use for her original purpose, were sufficiently intriguing to warrant investigation in their own right.

This book is about Catherine Bailey’s investigation into these gaps. It is not a ‘whodunnit’, for the person responsible for the deliberate destruction of these particular records is known and identified early on, namely, John Manners 9th duke of Rutland, but an investigation into the events giving rise to their destruction and why.

It is questionable whether this is truly a ‘gothic mystery’, but the style of the narrative follows that of a ‘whodunnit’ by continually whetting the appetite with a systematic stripping away of the layers, but withholding the answer until the end. However, whether or not this story is a mystery is not that important. What is conveyed within these pages is, in general, a story of the aristocracy’s perceived view of their rank and status, their arrogance and undoubted hypocrisy, but in particular the power, control and manipulation exercised by the Manners and the depths to which the family stoops to protect that rank and status, above all else.
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LibraryThing member nicx27
This book got off to a fascinating start. The author had set out to write a completely different book, one about the men of the Belvoir estate who had gone off to fight in WWI and the effects it had, but she discovered a mystery surrounding John, 9th Duke of Rutland, the manner of his death and the
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fact that, despite having a huge amount of correspondence and archived material, there were three parts of his life of which he had very carefully removed all trace (or so he thought). Catherine Bailey found herself drawn into finding out what he was trying to hide.

The beginning of her quest enthralled me. After many of the early chapters I had to stop and tell somebody what had happened as it was quite exciting. The lives of the Rutland family were tangled and complicated and there was a fair amount of unpleasantness in family life. We then got to the point where Bailey is investigating the gaps in John's WWI experiences and I did feel it all got very bogged down with far too much detail, to the point where I really couldn't concentrate on it all and take it all in. Nevertheless, the underlying story was still interesting and intriguing to me.

I read a proof copy of this book and, after meeting the author at an event the other night, I understand that the publishers printed the proof copy before they should have done and that there is more material in the final version, which might explain at least one of the unresolved gaps. I definitely want to try and find out what it was, as I did feel it was left too open-ended in my version.

Overall an interesting tale of family life and dastardly dealings, an overbearing mother, a distant father, tragedies, and ultimately the unhappiness caused by being part of the aristocracy.
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LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
I love Catherine Bailey - she really knows how to weave a fantastic tale out of the bare facts of historical research. Her book on Wentworth Woodhouse was fascinating, but this account of Belvoir Castle and the Duke of Rutland is truly captivating! I may have read too much historical fiction, but I
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could almost imagine I was reading a novel, not the real lives of an aristocratic family in the twentieth century. John Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland, died in 1940, but had squirreled himself away in a set of 'secret rooms' in the family castle before dying alone, determined to finish something of great importance before time ran out. Nearly 70 years later, the author arrives at Belvoir with a special pass to visit the Duke's rooms and research the family archives - five rooms of documents dating back centuries - for a planned book on the First World War. What she discovered was far more intriguing - John had apparently censored his own history in the reams of correspondence, for three particular dates - 1894, when he was eight, 1909,when he was a diplomat's assistant in Rome, and 1915, when he was serving in France during WW1. Why? What was John trying to hide?

I was absolutely riveted - missing letters, secret codes, family secrets (of course), and Catherine Bailey's cleverly paced cliffhangers! A hidden batch of letters, a trunk of overlooked correspondence, the cracking of the code - the pieces all slowly start to come together, and while the revelations are not exactly devastating (must be all that historical fiction), the final family portrait of the Manners family is both decadent and dysfunctional. Someone should turn this book into a miniseries! The curmudgeonly duke and his cruel wife, their lonely son who abandons duty for love, and the secret rooms at the castle. There's even a dodgy American spy thrown in for good measure! Yes, the final chapters are slightly repetitive, drawing out the reason behind John's wartime secret, but overall, a well-researched and exciting historical 'mystery'.

I seriously cannot recommend this book enough - fact is freakier than fiction!
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LibraryThing member EllenH
Wow! Talk about privilege in the 1900's! What a story Catherine Bailey puts together from bits and pieces she was able to find of the Dutchess.
LibraryThing member herzogm
The Secret Rooms, A True Story of A Haunted Castle, A Plotting Duchess, & A Family Secret, by Catherine Bailey, is a magnificent telling of a suspenseful story centered around World War I. General reviewers have criticized Bailey's detailed recounting of her research through multiple archives and
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thousands of individual documents in solving the mystery but that detail is just what genealogists will find wonderful about this book. She was unable to answer all the questions she had but again, that is what real research is like; sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you reach a dead-end.
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LibraryThing member Carol420
History is everything but boring within Belvoir Castle . . .

Why was the physician of King George VI expected? Most astonishing of all, why was this physician and others awaiting the patient to be ready for them?

These questions show only the beginning of the Duke of Rutland mystery, while England
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was entering the fray of World War I. Other issues plagued the hierarchy landing many in a state of turmoil long before the war. In fact, to some, the war was a welcome act, to others it marked the end of a lifestyle, and to some, it was a fear like no other.

To understand this time and culture one needs to understand the history. Further, one needs to know that history has the ability to change, albeit not sometimes unexpectedly. Moreover, one needs to realize the family dynamic. The family position was, well, everything and appearances mattered daily. However, it was the first-born male heir who mattered most, but this young heir landed at death's door.

Was it an accident? Or an illness? Or was it something more?

Catherine Bailey brings to life yesteryear that Downton Abbey fans will relish, and her riddle manages to capture mystery lovers and history buffs too.

The lives in this story will have you enthralled, as you race to find answers that lay just beyond indecorum and falsehoods. Strong women, weak men, appear inside the walls of Belvoir Castle, but roles change as their time progresses. If you are like me, you'll believe that just maybe someone still living is suspicious that things weren't right in the past.
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LibraryThing member SESchend
If you're looking for something spooky, this isn't your book. However, if you like Downton Abbey with more mystery, this might just be the ticket for your reading pile.

Great and intriguing mystery with numerous layers at the start and through the middle; loses its punch and focus a bit once WWI
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becomes the focal point of the book.

My biggest regret was that the "haunted castle" part in the subtitle really only equates to a paragraph very early in the book. Alas, my expectations weren't met because of that, though the history and biographic bits held my interest through to the end.
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LibraryThing member kemilyh1988

LibraryThing member elkiedee
The Secret Rooms, billed as A True Gothic Mystery, is a kind of biography of the 9th Duke of Rutland. I found it an interesting enough read, but I felt it didn't quite live up to the title and the really intriguing cover.

The book opens with the death of the Duke in 1940, then the author describes
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how she came across his story some years later - she had set out to research something slightly different. While looking at his papers, she discovered that someone, probably the Duke, had been keen to conceal various papers and that it appeared he had something to hide - what was it?

I enjoyed the look at the life of an aristocratic family in the early 20th century, before and after WWI, but felt a bit like saying, is that all there is to it? at the revelations. I think part of the problem was that the author kept writing about the sensational secrets she was uncovering, and they weren't that sensational.

The print book comes with some black and white photos (not that well reproduced) of the Duke and his family, and various maps and plans of his estate, his home, Belvoir Castle, and other significant places in the story, and lots of endnotes detailing the author's references.

This is clearly meticulously researched and an interesting read but the mystery is not as exciting as the title leads one to expect.

Reviewed 21 March 2013 as part of the Amazon Vine programme.
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Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

512 p.; 8.2 inches


0143124730 / 9780143124733


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