- - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE SECRET ROOMS: A TRUE STORY OF A HAUNTED CASTLE, A PLOTTING DUCHESS, AND A FAMILY SECRET
By Catherine Bailey
Penguin, $16, 465 pages, illustrated

Although presented as a mystery, this is actually a rather simple and heartrending story about a family that happens to be one of England’s leading aristocratic clans.

Rutland may have enjoyed the distinction of being England’s smallest county, but there is nothing insignificant about the Manners family, who took their ducal title from it; nor is there anything insignificant about Belvoir Castle, a vast pile in neighboring Leicestershire that makes Downton Abbey (or Highclere Castle, where it is filmed) look positively cozy.

Oxford-trained television producer Catherine Bailey has chosen to organize her story as an attempt to discover the inside story of a well-kept family secret. Her sleuthing does reveal a great deal of obfuscation, which she manages to penetrate, but she spends so much time shining a spotlight on her quest — and on herself — that the discovery is inevitably a bit of a letdown.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the reader won’t enjoy perching on her shoulder as she soaks up the atmosphere of the ancient castle, pores over archives, and meets the disarmingly uncomplicated current generation of aristocrats who preside over it all. However, it is not what is in the archives that animates Ms. Bailey’s enterprise so much as the glaring gap she discovers: Key periods during World War I are missing, destroyed personally by the ninth Duke of Rutland as he was dying in April 1940, just as the “Phony War” was giving way to the real thing.

Why would a man so ill that he required an oxygen tent spend his time so assiduously burning papers? Even the king’s personal physician, summoned from London, could not attend his patient: “His Grace has something he must finish,” a servant informs him.

Ms. Bailey paints a memorable picture of life inside the fog-shrouded castle: upstairs where the frustrated medicos dine in splendor, and downstairs where the servants’ curiosity and gossip is only somewhat restrained by decorum. Snatches of conversation and bits of evidence are eagerly seized upon. By the time the duke finally succumbs, still only in his late 50s, his task would appear to have been completed. Or was it? Why was there a break-in only a few days after his funeral?

Although that may not have been Ms. Bailey’s intention, the story that she uncovers proves that great wealth and ancient titles do not inoculate those who possess them from the tragedies that afflict common folk. Indeed, as in this case, they can add another dimension: the survival of a dynasty and dukedom.

John, the ninth duke, seems to have led a charmed life in early childhood, shielded from the burden of succession by an older brother, Haddon, to whom he was very close. However, when Haddon died suddenly, everything fell apart for John. His grief-stricken mother was more interested in creating a sculpted memorial to her adored elder son than in comforting his bereft brother. Indeed, she seems to have been unable to bear the sight of him, consigning him to the care of an uncle, who, while fond, may not have been the best of influences.

Fast-forward to World War I and the duchess becomes a veritable tigress mother in her determination to see that her surviving son and heir to the dukedom — now a young army officer — is kept away from the front line.

In her determination to preserve his life, she calls in all her considerable IOUs and uses every contact a long and socially prominent life has given her, ambushing generals in their offices and writing letters. It seems that written evidence of all this is what her son, ravaged by guilt at being spared while so many from his estate were not, is bent on destroying in his last hours on earth.

Ms. Bailey would have us believe that the duchess is more concerned with preventing the Rutland dukedom from going out of existence than with saving her son’s life, but I think that her book is marred by insufficient sympathy and understanding of this highly sensitive woman, irreparably damaged by the untimely death of a son.

She tries, most unconvincingly to my mind, to insinuate that John may have been responsible for Haddon’s death in some way. The terrible grief of a mother and the inevitable survivor’s guilt cannot be underestimated in a situation like this. A prurient “gotcha” attitude is both distasteful and distracting, particularly when it fails to bear fruit. Just because there are coronets at stake doesn’t mean that there are not kind hearts as well.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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