I first encountered Catherine Bailey’s work when I read Black Diamonds, a book to which I was drawn by an article in The Sunday Times about Wentworth Woodhouse, a massive stately home not far away from where I live and of which I had previously been barely aware.
By chance, The Secret Rooms is also about a stately home situated in an area with which I am very familiar, Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. It isn’t too far away from Spalding and is a place which I visited several times in my childhood, once on a primary school trip and at least twice more when my mother was hooked on Sunday afternoon visits to the grand houses that had begun to open their doors to the public in order to make ends meet (admission charges were half a crown for adults, children half-price).
Although I’m sure that the guides I encountered and the guide-book that my mother would have religiously bought told me something about the Manners family who lived there, I have long since forgotten the details. I do, however, remember the name ‘Manners’ and I knew that Lady Diana Manners, the sister of the ninth Duke of Rutland, was a renowned beauty who eventually became the witty society hostess Lady Diana Cooper, wife of the journalist Duff Cooper. She and he were both writers and still writing when I got my first job in the book industry.
Like Black Diamonds, The Secret Rooms gradually uncovers the secrets of an aristocratic family that tried its best to conceal them. The chief concealer in this instance is the ninth Duke. He occupies the central role in this story (I won’t call him a ‘hero’, as he doesn’t quite match up to the term). His full name was John Brinsley Henry Manners. A World War One veteran (of sorts), he died of a chest infection when only in his fifties, a death certainly hastened and possibly caused by shutting himself up in the dank basement servants’ quarters at Belvoir for days on end with the family papers, from which he excised many details relating to himself. He particularly wanted to expunge all trace of three distinct periods in his life. Catherine Bailey manages to get to the bottom of his secrets in two of these; the third remains a mystery.
If John is not a hero, neither is he quite an anti-hero, but Bailey provides a fine portrait of an anti-heroine: Violet, Duchess of Rutland, John’s mother. Partisan (even when distributing her favours among her own children), snobbish and scheming, she sweeps through the book, an anachronism even in her own time, the epitome of ruthless privilege, an arch-representative of a social class that was finally annihilated by the Second World War. Bailey tries to suggest that Violet was responsible for all or most of John’s shortcomings. In this, she does not quite succeed. From her account, John may have been more melancholy than his mother and, warped by her rejection of him during childhood, undoubtedly less socially confident, but she can hardly be held to account for the shabby way in which he treated his much younger wife, or indeed the way in which he exploited women generally. The reader sympathises, however, with the fact that John’s talents as a historian – he became a distinguished self-taught mediaevalist – are scorned by the family, who simply see his accomplishments as further evidence of his ‘oddness’. Only his uncle, Charles Lindsay, shows any real empathy with him or insight into his character. It may be significant that ‘Charlie’ is a closet homosexual. The author hints that some of John’s behaviour might be attributed to his own suppressed sexual proclivities.
Black Diamonds is a very successful book. The Secret Rooms has already won many plaudits and is well on its way to being as stellar, if not more so, than its predecessor. Bailey has grown more assured as a writer in the latter book, which is generally of benefit to the reader, and both books are equally well-researched. Her control of the narrative is admirable, although it occasionally results in a certain amount of artifice which can jar a little. For example, her account of John’s movements during the First World War does not follow the chronological order of events, unlike the rest of the book; we are ambushed with the details, first, of his broken engagement and secondly, of his marriage, with no prior warning of the existence of either of the women concerned. Granted, this makes the book read more like a thriller (if that’s want the reader wants); it may also indicate that these episodes were written with one eye on turning it into a film or television documentary. But I’m being too churlish, now, about a book that absorbed me for four evenings in a row during a recent short break on the East coast, when I was also recuperating from a nasty cold. If you like well-written English social history, have a fascination with the aristocracy, or just enjoy immersing yourself in a true-life mystery, you will not be disappointed in this book.