Book review: The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey

A standard social history book turned into an extraordinary real-life Gothic mystery when Catherine Bailey delved into the family archives at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire.

The end result of her research was not the intended account of the estate workers’ service during the First World War but instead a gripping and ultimately tragic tale of betrayal, deceit, honour and death which confirms the old adage that the truth is stranger than fiction.

Belvoir Castle is home to the Manners family, better known as the Dukes of Rutland, whose association with this corner of England dates back to the 11th century.

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Like many other aristocratic families, the Dukes of Rutland have skeletons rattling around in their very grand cupboards, and none more so than the bizarre circumstances surrounding the death of the 9th duke in April 1940.

One of the wealthiest men in Britain, John Henry Montagu Manners, aged 53, ended his days virtually alone, lying on a makeshift bed in a dank, cramped suite of rooms in the servants’ quarters of his magnificent 320-room Gothic-style stately home.

For weeks, as his health had deteriorated, his family, his servants – and even King George VI’s personal doctor – pleaded with him to come out, but he refused.

After his death from bronchial pneumonia at 6am on April 21, his son and heir, Charles, the 10th Duke of Rutland, ordered that the rooms be locked up and they remained untouched for 60 years.

It was only when Bailey began reading through family papers for her research that she came across significant gaps in the records and set out to discover what lay behind the inexplicable omissions.

And she soon found herself unravelling a complex and compelling saga played out in the grand salons of Britain’s stately homes at the turn of the 20th century and on the battlefields of the Western Front.

At its core was a secret so dark that it consumed the life of the man who fought to his death to keep it hidden. In fact, the very last hours of the duke’s life were spent trying to complete his work on the archives, a task that he regarded as so urgent that he refused medical help.

After his death, the archive was closed up and the rooms, where the late duke had obsessively toiled for several years, were sealed off.

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It was the end of a bizarre chapter for the Manners family until Bailey turned the pages on the past and discovered that three periods of their family history were missing – 1894 when the duke was almost eight, 1909 when he was working in Rome and 1915 when the country was at war.

At the heart of this mystery, she discovered, were John’s parents, the 8th duke Henry Manners and his wife Violet Manners, an imperious, manipulative woman whose actions, we discover, destroyed the happiness of her son John.

John was their second son; heir to the title was his older brother Robert, Lord Haddon, whose premature death at the age of only nine in 1894 precipitated a series of distressing events for John, beginning with his removal from the family home to live with an uncle because his mother could not forgive him for still being alive when her favourite son was dead.

Years of meddling by his cold, loveless parents, and particularly by his mother, impacted directly on the rest of his life... and on his harrowing death in a cold, soulless archive room in a dark corner of Belvoir Castle.

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Bailey’s fascinating book takes us to the heart of a family tragedy as well as shedding new light on an age when the aristocracy possessed breathtaking powers and influence in both the social and political spheres.

Brilliantly researched, and written with style and depth, this is a horrifying story of love, despair, intrigue, snobbery and upper class eccentricity which reads like fiction but is amazingly – and shockingly – real.

(Viking, hardback, £20)