What makes The Secret Rooms really interesting is that its non-fiction. A Duke dies in mysterious rooms which are sealed after his death. This 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. Of course, the Victorians were frightfully keen on their postal system. And I knew that they had several deliveries each day. I
They sent letters the way we would send a text. Friends, family and peers in some cases received news as often as they do with social media. The status update is nothing new. Has modern technology made this more demographic? Good question.
But it wasn’t just the postal service making deliveries. 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. From there 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. The mysterious Duke did a good job of filling these. and he also organised the diaries, account books, telegrams, and drafts. There’s even an index of handwriting sample to help to identify who the writer might be.
To my delight, a pink ribbon had been used to tie some of the letters in bundles. Others had clearly been tucked away from prying eyes in a lingerie drawer or similar. A shimmering power of some kind coated them.
There is a fabulous description 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 a 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.