The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, & a Family Secret–Catherine Bailey

secret rooms

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.
Finished 6/23/14


1913: The Eve of War–Paul Ham (Kindle Single)


Paul Ham at times sounds like he’s writing German apologetics in 1913: The Eve of War.  Germans, he argues, had been left behind in the colonial race for prestige and power and countries like Britain, France, and Russia should be faulted for aggressively denying Germany any place on that colonial stage.  The Triple Entente, in effect, pushed Germany into the arms of Austria and Italy. France’s loan to Russia for expanding their railways understandably excited German fears, for example.  Chapter Four is titled, “English Germanophobia v. Germany’s King Neptune.”  Ham argues repeatedly that the German government was not warmongering prior to 1914, but his evidence seems to contradict this claim in several places, such as when he writes that the German government and “its press poodles overtly managed the people’s expectations” with regards to nationalistic possibilities.  The warmongers, he argues, were generals and the press across Europe.  The Germans had legitimate concerns about blockades by the British navy, but lost the naval race despite huge financial expenditures.  The French come under heaviest fire for racist attitudes.  The French president, Poincaré’s “governing animus,” Ham says, “was hatred for, and fear of, Germany, gleaned in his youth in 1871” (the year the Prussians defeated France and completed Bismarck’s program for unification of Germany.  This is starkly contrasted later with Bismarck’s “guiding animus” to acquire power peacefully, an odd characterization for a man who led Prussia into three wars, at least two of which he manufactured to further his nationalist and economic goals.  Britain and Russia eyed the chance for war as an opportunity for distraction from internal conflicts brought about by gross disparities in the distribution of wealth.  Ham repeatedly characterizes the Belle Epoque as soft, ineffective, and elitist, touching very few ordinary people, who were increasingly concerned about God and country.  Indeed, Ham criticizes cultural historians for paying too much attention to this elitist movement.  “Nostalgia-laden hindsight has imposed on the pre-war years,” Ham writes, “the notion of an artistic revolution that touched everyone.  It did not.”  Ham must have hated the attention to the centennial of the Arsenal Exhibition, which focused on the culture shock of 1913, as done in the splendid set of programs by the Fishko Files, Culture Shock: 1913. This argument, too, seems contradicted elsewhere in the work, such as when Ham says that Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia saw the world they knew under serious political and social threat.  

In the end, Ham attributes the war to passive politicians buoyed along by a nationalist press, personal animus, and the need to squelch internal conflicts.  Young men wanted glory and discounted the warnings of their elders from the decadent Belle Epoque (which, again, had no significant impact on anyone).  

In a 2011 interview with the Sydney Herald, Ham says he does not consider himself a historian.  In fact, his training is in economic history and political science (M.A. London School of Economics) and his professional experience is in journalism.  He also says he does not start a book with the end in mind, but does the research, weighs the evidence, then reaches his conclusions.  That is sound practice, but how one reads the research is key and, in this case, Ham’s conclusions about what led to war sound more like a commentary on our own times (he has chastised American foreign policy in other works) than on the early twentieth century.  History teaches us lessons, but there is a danger in mining history to teach the lessons we want it to give.  

Ham’s short work is thought-provoking and offers an interesting place in which to play with ideas, but its internal logic does not hold for me and makes me suspicious of its methodology and goals.  To be fair, however, I may read his longer work, 1914: The Year the World Ended, to see if this is a function of the compressed format or a characteristic of his work generally.  If you are interested in WWI and want a quick read, try out Ham’s 1913: The Eve of War, but keep your critical thinking cap on.

Finished 1/5/14