A sepulchral castle, a despotic lord, a guiltless maiden and a spectral, troubled antihero – these were the ingredients of the gothic novel at the high midnight of its popularity. Catherine Bailey’s The Secret Rooms contains all of these elements. The castle is the Manners family stronghold of Belvoir, a vast, crenellated edifice mounted imperiously on a ridge overlooking the Leicestershire countryside. The lord is Henry Manners, eighth Duke of Rutland, a firm-jawed man of outward rectitude and cosmetic charm, yet at heart a philistine with a ‘ferocious temper’, who mortally hated ‘abroad’ and ‘soap in his bath’. The maiden is his youngest daughter, Diana, a celebrated society beauty with ‘love-in-the-mist eyes’ and hair as delicate as ‘ancient Chinese silk’, whom one admirer exalted as an ‘orchid among cowslips, a black tulip in a garden of cucumbers, nightshade in the nursery’.
Then there is the antihero, John Manners, the duke’s younger son, ‘a distant, Heathcliffian figure’, tall, pinched and ‘fierce-looking’. A compulsive collector with ‘dark moods and morbid interests’, John surrounded himself with the spoils of his archaeological excavations; he had even been present at the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb. His