A friend recommended this book as we were discussing my current research project and the unexpected turns it was taking. It was, she thought, a good example of popular history that talked through the historical process.
She was right. In fact, Catherine Bailey should have listened to her. Closely. This story involves secret rooms, a plotting duchess, and a family secret (and briefly a haunted castle story). The plotting duchess is not surprising and the family secret all too quotidian once revealed. What’s worse, the epilogue suggests all of it was for naught, which might leave a reader wondering why they had invested in more than 400 pages of reading for naught. Even Bailey seems annoyed, as she lists the men about whom she had intended to write her book and from whose story the secret rooms had diverted her.
There is the story. Bailey came to Belvoir Castle to tell the story of the men of the Midlands who fought and died in the trenches of WWI. The secret rooms began the flirtation and the meticulously archived letters and artifacts of the 9th Duke of Rutland, the man who died in those spare secret rooms, completed the seduction. Readers should not invest in this book for the story of Rutland, whose childhood sorrows and young adult dramas are different only in time and degree of privilege from most of our own. They should invest because Bailey, almost inadvertently, tells the story of a historian’s love affair with the past and passion for a historical puzzle. In the early chapters, Bailey keeps us focused on both her path and the duke’s emerging story, but, as the duke’s story unfolds, her path fades into the background and the duke’s story takes over.
Publishing is a business and readers are fickle buyers. I get that, which is why I forgive the bogus haunted castle in the subtitle and the melodramatic cover art. But readers are fickle lovers, too, and they expect satisfaction in the end. Bailey should have mirrored her seduction of the reader with her own seduction by the archives. Use the glamour of the castle and the family to draw us in, then ensnare us in the puzzle and let us share in the satisfaction of solving it, of having chosen to follow the duke’s story rather than the story that brought her to Belvoir in the first place. Then we could close the covers satisfied, satiated, rather than disappointed and slightly empty. Maybe then she would not feel herself as if her noble goals had been hijacked for an unworthy subject.
Is it worth the read? Yes, but don’t go into it thinking that you are reading a great mystery with all the expectations that genre entails (and that the jacket blurb promises). Read it with a keen eye to how she tracks down the story and appreciate the way in which she pulls the puzzle together. The Secret Rooms: The True Story of a Privileged Family, a Persistent Historian, & the Unsung Archivists. Just a suggestion.