The Secret Rooms: A true story of a haunted castle, a plotting duchess, and a family secret by Catherine Bailey

Secrets. Every family has them, but maybe not to the extent the family of the Duke of Rutland has. An old aristocratic British family, the title was created for Thomas Manners in 1525 and it's been a direct line ever since. Catherine Bailey was at Belvoir Castle (the Duke's home) to research a book. The current Duke had given her permission to look at the private family papers kept at the castle which were kept in the Muniment Rooms, locked up for years. There were hundreds of boxes containing the family's private letters and papers, ledgers, files, household records, rare manuscripts. Bailey was there to research a book about England and World War I and finds family information about the war that certainly wasn't what she was looking for. She realized there were distinct gaps in the documents. One gap dealt with the time surrounding the death of a child and the largest gap included the time John, the 9th Duke of Rutland, who would have been serving in the British Army during World War I. John had sequestered himself in the rooms and was culling the documents when he died.

Bailey has written a book about the family during the time of the 8th and 9th Dukes. John Henry manners was the 9th Duke of Rutland. His mother was Violet, his father, Henry and he had several siblings. His father was a non entity while his mother was a force majeure. What she wanted, she got. She got her way by subterfuge, giving and calling in favors and by being socially indispensable. John was the second son of  Henry and Violet. Robert Charles was the oldest son - the darling, the heir. A year older than John, he died when he was 9. Shortly after the death, which officially was attributed to TB, John was sent to live with his uncle Charles.

John was fine with Charles and then World War I happened. All over his father's estate men were volunteering for the army. Henry was actually encouraging the men to enlist. John enlisted and Violet objected strenuously. She made a plan to protect John, who was now the heir, never telling John of her plan but bringing Charles in on it. She had to keep John away from the front. She called in favors from men she knew in the War Department, spoke to generals, lied and made up stories, called in favors and basically orchestrated John's life.

The secret rooms of the book title are the Muniment rooms - forbidden to household staff and visitors until Bailey was allowed in the rooms held all the family secrets. The haunted castle comes from family legend that a curse exists that makes the oldest male child (and heir) in each generation die without inheriting the title. The plotting Duchess is Violet but the family secret is John.

I read this book in 3 days. While nonfiction, it reads like fiction: Downton Abbey come alive. The characters seem like they should be fictional but they are not. The havoc the Duchess created for her family and especially her son is the real story. This book offers a glimpse into real secrets of an aristocratic family carefully pieced together, by Bailey, and eventually revealing the secrets.

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