What makes The Secret Rooms really exciting is that it’s non-fiction. The premise of a Duke dying in mysterious rooms which are sealed after his death sounds like something from a novel, but it’s not.
To make it extra exciting the whole thing hinges on letters. A researcher finds three gaps in the family archives and begins finding out why the correspondence from those periods has been removed.
Prior to reading this I hadn’t taken on how much people (very rich upper class people to be precise) wrote. I was aware that the Victorians were rather keen on their postal system and had several deliveries each day but this goes far beyond that.
They sent letters the way we would send a text. Clearly, the need to constantly update our family, friends and peers was there long before social media arrived, although this may be have made the process a tad more democratic (the current digital divide is noted).
So while the postal service was used so were other methods. One passage describes a footman delivering a ‘by hand’ letter. Not to another part of their massive castle as I’d assumed. Instead a pony and trap took him to the station where he caught the train for London and then a cab to the house of the addressee.
Despite many letters being labelled burn or destroy the recipients don’t seem to have been very good at this. As a result Belvoir Castle holds thousands of letters written by the Manners family. These are all neatly filed (by the mysterious Duke) along with diaries, account books, telegrams, drafts. There’s even an index of handwriting sample to help identify who the writer might be.
I was delighted to discover that some of the letters were tied up in bundles with pink ribbon. Others had clearly been tucked away from prying eyes in a lingerie drawer or similar (based on them being covered in a shimming power of some kind).
There is a fabulous image of Violet, the scheming Duchess, sitting in bed each morning writing letters with a bottle of ink balanced on the bed. However I was less certain how the other family members approached their correspondence. Did they dash to a desk each time they want to write? Or call a servant to fetch their writing case? Or carry a pen and paper on them, and just call for an envelope?
But getting back to the plot uncovering what might have been behind the gaps in correspondence is fascinating. You anxiously scan each piece of evidence (replies to deleted letters, entries from other people’s diaries, telegrams) hoping to find the words that will reveal the secret. The author helpfully draws your attention to items small and large. A change in signature. The same plea repeated through a series of letters. What enciphered sections actually say.
It’s intriguing to think that words, written in many cases so casually, reveal so much. The Secret Rooms should leave you aspiring to write more letters, and to think about how future generations will view our correspondence.
Wishing you green ink and good food,