The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, & a Family Secret by Catherine Bailey. Sounds like all the elements are in place for a fascinating story! Keep reading to find out how you can enter to win your very own copy!
In 2008, historian Catherine Bailey was granted access to the papers of John, the 9th Duke of Rutland, who had died in 1940. The current Duke is his grandson, the 11th Duke. Ms. Bailey wanted to research the effect of World War I on the area surrounding the Duke's ancestral home of Belvoir Castle. Nearly a fifth of the men who lived on the Duke's lands had gone off to fight in World War I, and many of them didn't return. They were generally farm workers who had never been more than a few miles from their homes. The author was planning a book about the war experiences on these men and their families -- both those who died in the war and those who returned home to a country that had been changed forever.
The 9th Duke had spent his life collecting, organizing and cataloging the papers, letters, diaries and historical documents that related to his family. Soon after arriving at the castle to begin her research, the author was intrigued by the stories she heard about the Duke. Although the castle where he lived had 356 rooms, many of them beautifully and expensively decorated, he chose to wall himself off in a small unheated part of the castle to work on his organization project of the family archives. He rarely left these rooms and had little contact with the outside world -- or indeed, with anyone other than his valet. When the Duke was desperately ill with pneumonia, even doctors were kept at bay as the Duke worked feverishly to finish a "project." After his death, his son sealed off his father's rooms and papers for over 60 years. So it was with a great deal of anticipation that the author approached the huge collection of family and castle history that the Duke had been working with at his death.
As she began her research, however, she soon noticed something extremely odd: there were gaps in the documents. The Duke's mother was an unbelievably busy correspondent, writing to many, many people and some even more than once per day. The Duke also kept a diary from his own life. There were three periods where no documentation of any kind could be found: one from when the Duke was around 8 years old and surrounded the death of his older brother Haddon; one from his time serving in the diplomatic service in Rome as a young man; and the last, particularly vexing given the subject of the book, a 6 month period in 1915 when John had been serving as an officer in World War I. John's diary ends on July 6 of that year, and no letters or other correspondence could be found from that date until December 5 of the same year. What had happened? Was the "project" that John had to finish on his deathbed an attempt to erase all trace of something that occurred during this time?
Because of this mystery, and how it impacted her original plan, the author changed course and decided instead to write a book about the Duke's life. She was determined to discover just what these mysterious gaps were about and what the Duke had been at such pains to cover up. The lengths the author had to go to in search of the answers were extraordinary! She consulted the families of those the Duke's mother corresponded with to see if they still had letters from her, reviewed official war records, worked to decipher some of John's letters that had been written in code, and so on. Ms. Bailey really needs to get a job with a Cold Case crime squad somewhere, because when she's on the trail of a mystery, she doesn't give up!
The book contains many letters from the family and helps to paint a very vivid portrait of both the individual family members and the privileged society in which they lived. The castle is also an important part of the story, as is the history of the curse place on it and the family by some disgruntled witches (are there any other kind?). I really was eager to keep reading and to both find out the answers to some of the questions raised by the missing documents, and to marvel at the author's ability to re-construct the events that took place nearly 100 years ago into a fascinating narrative. I also enjoyed the epilogue which gave more information about what eventually happened to many of the characters in the book.
Thanks to The Penguin Group, I have a copy of the book to give away! To be in with a chance to win, please leave a comment stating what holiday reading is going to keep you occupied until Downton Abbey premiers on January 5! One entry per person and you must have a US address to receive the book. Be sure to leave your email address in the comment or make sure it's visible in some other way so I can contact you. I will contact the winner on Jan. 3 and you will have 72 hours to get back to me with an address, or I will have to choose another winner. Thanks for participating and good luck!
Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Secret Rooms (and one to give away) from The Penguin Group in exchange for this review
Final Verdict for The Secret Rooms:
Four Gherkins, for being an amazing look at the unraveling of a real life mystery!
7 hours ago