The Secret Rooms Catherine Bailey

Viking, pp.466, £20, ISBN: 9780670917556

The Quest for Corvo started something rather peculiar in biography. A.J.A. Symons’s 1934 classic — described as ‘an experiment’ — set out the biographer’s search for his subject, and not just the results. This was justified in the case of an elusive and unusual figure like the ‘Baron’ Corvo. Nowadays, many biographies are written like this, and we have to hear about the author tramping from archive to library to study. Can it really be justified in the case of a 20th-century duke, whose papers are in the order in which he left them?

I may be lacking in curiosity about the scholarly life, but I’m just not thrilled by the following paragraph in Catherine Bailey’s latest book: ‘I tapped in my reader number and selected “Search the Catalogue”. It was a bleak afternoon in late November and I was at the National Archives in Kew.’ Most readers would surely rather hear about the products of research, unadorned, than about the laborious process of getting there. Bailey continues: ‘What I discovered next changed the course of my research entirely … But first, I had a long conversation with the Duchess.’ This is all very well, in a preening way. But when so much of a book is about the process of finding stuff out in an unremarkable manner, you have to wonder whether there is much of substance at the end of the quest. In this case, the final material is thin indeed.

The 9th Duke of Rutland died of pneumonia, relatively young, in 1940, in the muniments rooms of Belvoir Castle. He attached great importance to his role as the keeper of the Rutland archives, and in the last days of his life spent as much time as possible in the rooms, apparently sorting through the family papers. Few people were admitted to them then, for good reason — you can’t have the public traipsing, in large numbers, through an archive. Subsequently, the family left the papers more or less undisturbed — although to call these rooms ‘secret’ seems to be pushing it somewhat.

When Bailey started to go through the records for a proposed book about the Great War, it struck her that she was the first person to look at many of them for decades. On examination, it became clear that, though generally in very good order, they had three gaps of substance, which occurred in more than one set. The 9th Duke had obviously spent his last days destroying evidence which related to certain periods in his life and his relationship with his family. Bailey’s book is largely about reconstructing what probably happened during these years.

The first gap relates to the death of the 9th Duke’s elder brother Haddon. This was a major tragedy in 1890s England. Haddon died at the age of nine, of what was described as a sudden illness. Subsequently, John, the sole surviving son, was sent away on the very day of the funeral. Some evidence outside the family archive suggests that Haddon’s death was the result of what the Duchess described as ‘a tiny acrobatic trick’ — and that she blamed her younger son in some way that remains obscure.

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The second period relates to a family argument over the ownership of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, conducted while John was working in the British embassy in Rome. The argument was clearly extremely acrimonious — in one coded letter to his uncle, John calls his father ‘a cunt’. Still, though you can see why the 9th Duke might not have wanted posterity to know the details of a family row over money, it is hard to find it disgraceful any longer.

The third and most substantial gap in the archive dates from the Great War. John’s mother, Violet, was widely regarded as an evil and conniving person by her contemporaries. It seems probable that, after John was posted to the front, she became hysterical with fear for his safety, and flirted outrageously with every general she could lay her hands on, attempting to persuade them to remove John from the line of fire.

She also talked various tame doctors into issuing bogus sickness certificates. John clearly resented this interference, and thought it highly embarrassing. Violet, however, got her way and when John met a beautiful girl called Kakoo and married her, he finally acquiesced, and spent the rest of the war out of harm’s way.

Obviously, to a man with elevated notions of duty and responsibility, it would have seemed a blot that the heir to a dukedom, rather than setting an example of self-sacrifice, was in a position to remove himself from danger. It is easy to understand why John wanted to destroy papers relating to this episode. But it is also very easy to see why the Duchess, having lost one son, was desperately concerned not to lose another, both for reasons of private sentiment and out of concern that the line should not end in the trenches. Bailey’s view is that

John’s position as one of the most privileged young men in England gave him a choice and he took it …. The four million British men who served in the Great War, 673,375 of whom were killed, had no choice but to fight.

But would John’s futile sacrifice have changed anything at all? The Prince of Wales was refused permission to fight at the front. The age would probably have seen the sole heir to a great dukedom as having some of the same licence to escape the slaughter. Violet wrote in a private letter: ‘I must fight! Other mothers do nothing. What do they get for their bravery? The worst.’ She sounds an unusually clear-sighted woman.

In the end, the Duke’s destruction of the papers doesn’t reveal very much; and anything further — Bailey seems to hint that there may have been a sexual relationship between John and his uncle Charlie — has to remain a mystery. John’s avoidance of combat has in any case been public knowledge for over 50 years. In her autobiography, his sister Lady Diana Cooper told the story, saying that, ‘To get my brother to GHQ was [my mother’s] obsessing hope.’

This book has various other slapdash features — $5 million is said to be worth both $128 million and, shortly afterwards, ‘almost $1 billion’ in today’s values. When Bailey tells us that the Duke had a wage bill of £900,000, she means in today’s money, calculated according to relative earnings rather than the retail price index, so it is hardly likely to have struck the Duke as a comparable burden.

Above all, the book betrays an amazing vulgarity, Amateur psychology is expressed in rhetorical questions: ‘He [the 9th Duke] had also collected human bones. Was this a manifestation of the psychological damage his parents had inflicted on him?’ There are some truly frightful appearances of servants’ hall superstitions: ‘Mr Tweed said His Grace was being taken by the witches’ curse. We all knew about it. It had been going on for hundreds of years.’ In descriptive mode, Bailey writes: ‘Tiny points of dust sparkled in front of us, caught in the light that flooded in from the single window.’

It is well known that the English reading public will generally snap up any old stuff about dukes, but this may test their patience. Why this book has been written at all I find incomprehensible.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated