Non-fiction books are often a double edged sword for me. I love that I get the historical information and facts about a period in history or a specific person etc, however often the material is presented in a very scholarly manor and can at times be on the dry side.
However ever once in a while I get a non-fiction book for review that really catches my eye and that was the case with The Secret Rooms but Catherine Bailey.
This book promised a Downton Abbey-esque, real life mystery in the upper echelons of WWI English society…how could I pass it up? This story roped me in almost immediately.
It read more like a historic fiction novel, the only thing that would give it away as a non-fiction book was the author’s continual commentary about her research and journey of discovery.
While researching England’s involvement in the early days of WWI, Catherine Bailey inadvertently stumbled upon a family mystery hidden in the archives of Belvoir Castle.
Belvoir Castle is the estate for one of England’s most powerful families, especially at the time of the Great War, the Manner’s family. After John Manners, the Ninth Duke of Rutland, died in the archives room of the castle in 1940, the archives were completely sealed.
In 2008, Bailey was granted exclusive access to the five large archive rooms for her research. While scanning through centuries of primary documents untouched since 1940, she found strange gaps in letters and journal entries of the late Ninth Duke.
The gaps were very specific periods in his life but the one that stood out was his service in the Great War from July to December….it was completely missing. It was very evident that someone had taken great care to all but eliminate that period as well as two others from John’s life.
The only explanation is that it was John himself who altered the records, but why? What could have happened that would have made him cover up three periods in his life? Bailey begins researching the answer and what she finds is a very complicated and carefully guarded family mystery.
While at times I found the theories and questions being investigated by Bailey being overstated, I felt that the overall direction of the book intriguing. The writing and book aren’t perfect but I think that is why I enjoyed it so much.
I didn’t feel like the information and background were overly scholarly or dry, on the contrary I found all her information relevant and easy to digest. Sometimes I thought she over stated her purpose for the book but it wasn’t a huge distraction–at least for me.
Sometimes the story telling style was a little overly dramatic and there was a lot of the author’s own emotions interjected into the story but I thought it was a nice break in the history part. It broke up the story nicely and made me want to continue reading.
I loved reading all the primary sources and background on the family as well as general society during the early modern era. I love the Edwardian era and find anything from that period utterly riveting, especially when it involves high society.
Though they ‘mystery’ wasn’t completely scandalous or shocking but interesting to read about and see how all the different ‘clues’ fit together. I loved finding out the ‘why’. The entire book held my interested without question.
I did want to know a little more about the family and their family dynamics as well as their role in society etc but I thought the information the author provided was sufficient for the book and story….but for my own personal interest, I think I will try and pick up a book on the family if there is one available.
The only thing that I wish I would have done differently was get the book in a hard copy. I read the book on my iPad and in my ARC digital copy there weren’t any photos of the family or the estate etc. I am assuming that the hard copy would have included those or perhaps the final digital copy will have photos but my early copy did not. I relied on the internet to find photos of the family and estate etc.
I don’t know that I would call this a ‘gothic’ mystery or novel in anyway….maybe in a very generic sense but there wasn’t an abundance of gothic elements that would make it stand out as such for me. But it was a great mystery indeed! Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and that was definitely the case here!
ebook, 425 pages
Published December 31st 2013 by Penguin Books
ISBN 0143124730 (ISBN13: 9780143124733)
- Review copy provided by: Publisher in exchange for an honest review
This book counts toward: NA
- Hosted by: NA
- Books for Challenge Completed: NA
Recommendation: 5 out of 5
Genre: non-fiction, Victorian lit, Edwardian era, Gothic lit, biography
Memorable lines/quotes: NA