With Downton back and the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War almost upon us, the US release of The Secret Rooms, a fascinating (and troubling) piece of historical detective work by the British writer Catherine Bailey (full disclosure: an old friend) is well timed.
[I]f we know anything from watching “Downton Abbey,” it’s that one man’s castle is another’s gilded cage. John’s was especially claustrophobic. How fitting, then, that he should have spent his final days in some of Belvoir’s smallest, dreariest rooms — the secret rooms of this book’s title. In pages more reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe than Evelyn Waugh, Bailey opens with John’s death, on April 21, 1940, inside the cheerless Belvoir Castle archives. Exactly what he was doing there — in an oxygen tent, surrounded by several centuries’ worth of family papers, working frantically on something — is the proverbial question.
Why we should care isn’t immediately apparent. But it soon emerges that John’s son sealed these rooms after his father’s death. “He knew there was something bad in there,” a family member tells Bailey, “but he couldn’t bring himself to confront it.” Sure enough, John had things to hide. Excisions abounded in the family papers….
Of course they did.