Genres/Lists: Historical Fiction, Non-Fiction
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In 1940, John the 9th Duke of Rutland, locked himself in the servants quarters of his 356-room castle with his papers and journals and refused to leave, jeopardizing his health and ultimately leading to his death. What he did in these rooms, known as the Muniments Rooms, was a mystery until a few years ago, when the rooms were unsealed for the first times since his death and Catherine Bailey showed up to research a book about the villagers who died fighting in World War 1. What she ended up discovering was that John spent his last days erasing three periods of his life from the collections of letters and diaries he locked himself away with (interestingly, he erased a total of 356 days, which is exactly how many rooms the castle has). Upon learning this, Bailey shifted her focus to the Rutland family, in particular to John, in an effort to find out what horrific events he sought to remove from history.
The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey is the story of John, a sad and neglected man who found comfort in his compulsive need to collect things from bird’s nests to family letters. An introvert who would rather study old artifacts than adhere to social norms, his shunning of high society led him to be a constant disappointment to his family. Unfortunately, his family, and in particular his mother, was accustomed to getting their way and had no qualms with using their political and social connections to achieve their goals.
It is against this backdrop of family dynamic that The Secret Rooms takes place, and the book is better off for it. Without Bailey’s extensive research into the Rutland family, John’s efforts to erase aspects of his past would be unexciting. The book is set up in three sections, with each placing an emphasis on a missing piece from the puzzle. Although told independently, they intertwine and weave a complex tale of family, betrayal, and influence in a time when men were killed at war by the tens of thousands. Filled with cliffhangers and at times speculative, Bailey keeps the reader at the edge of their seats until the very last page.
If I have one complaint, it’s that I feel guilty while I reflect back on the book. The Secret Rooms offers an in-depth look into John’s private life, insecurities, and inner demons that he died trying to protect. Yet, there I was, reading the most intimate parts of his life eagerly while passing judgment on him and his family. Had I known how vehemently opposed he was to these secrets getting out, I might not have picked up the book. Of course, I didn’t know that going into it and once I started, I was unable to put the book down while I was reading it. In hindsight, the book is very much a historic exposé, so if you like reading about the secrets no one wanted made public, then this is the book for you.