Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Finals Finished and a Great Book Review: The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey

I'm pretty happy I managed to survive my first semester at grad school.  It was messy, stressful, and tear-inducing, but I learned quite a lot and look forward to starting a new semester in January armed with more wisdom and better time management skills.  

But…I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey from Penguin and in between finishing up the semester and working, I've been reading it and loving every drama that unfolded.  Anyone who's interested in English history, particularly World War I and the aristocracy, will want to pick this book up and dive into the saga of the Rutland family.

John, the 9th Duke of Rutland, had a few things in his life that determined the path he would take before dying alone amongst the family archives in 1940:  the death of his older brother as a young boy, and an interfering mother who could write letters like a machine.  

Catherine Bailey first came upon the intriguing story of John and the Rutland family while looking through the archives at Belvoir Castle, the Rutland family estate.  She was interested in writing about the soldiers from the area who had fought in World War 1.  It was a big deal for her to be given access to these archives; the five rooms they occupied has been closed off to everyone since John, the 9th Duke of Rutland, had died in 1940.  John had spent the last years of his life (he died relatively young of pneumonia) working on the family history, and amassing archives that were priceless.  Not only did he organize the family history, but he collected other written treasures of English history that went back to the 11th century.  His work creating these archives is just amazing and became his life's obsession.

While Catherine was looking through the archives, she found a few peculiar things missing:  family correspondence from three particular times:  months in 1894, months in 1908, and a five-month period in 1915, when John was involved in World War 1.  Not one bit of information was found for these three time frames.  Catherine came to the conclusion that only John could have removed the letters from the family archives. But why?  Her search and tenacity are amazing, as she uncovers family secrets that haunted John all his life, and shaped the man he became.  Family intrigue, a manipulating mother, a father who was on the brink of financial ruin, and an uncle that John adored all come alive in the letters Catherine finds in the archives.  

This is a really entertaining book, and of course the photos in the book put each person's face in your mind as you read the letters they wrote each other through the years.  It really is hard to believe that the machinations that occurred were not made up fiction, but really happened.  Violet Rutland (John's mother) is one character you won't soon forget.  

Fans of Downton Abbey, World War 1, and anyone who enjoys a bit of history will find this book intriguing and a bit sad, too.  It's available in a few weeks, in paperback.  It would make a great read on a winter's night.  

Rating:  8/10 for readability and a fascinating story researched by Catherine Bailey.  

Available in paperback and e-book.

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