In a nutshell, Bailey went to Belvoir Castle-- a huge pile that comes off sounding like Gormenghast-- to research the role of the local yeomanry and the family of the castle's owner, the Duke of Rutland, in the first world war. Belvoir's archive was reputed to be amazing. It contained not merely all documents relating to the castle's daily life and that of its tenant farmers-- expenditures, rentals, servants' wages, staff rolls, etc etc for centuries-- but half a millennium's worth of letters from that prodigious letter-writing family. These had been rescued from desks and drawers and wherever they'd been stuffed, put in order, and catalogued by the 9th Duke, John, who made the archives his life work-- and eventually, death work as well. He contracted pneumonia but refused to move from the damp, unheated, unadorned rooms in the servants' wing (floor, actually- the ground one) that lacked toilets or running water, either hot or cold. (In that respect, not really different from domestic arrangements when he was a child.) John died in 1940 on a couch amidst the boxes of his family's correspondence. His son had the rooms sealed after his death, and only in the grandson's time were they opened and a proper archivist hired. Bailey was one of the first to apply to use this mass of material.
She began reading John's war diary, full of description and action: his regiment had been stationed near Ypres where several bloody battles were fought. But suddenly in July 1915 the diary petered out-- multi-paragraph entries turned into inconsequential terse notes- 'usual day' 'nothing much'- and then stopped completely.
She turned to the letters for an explanation. This family kept its letters-- and all inevitably ended up in the archives. No one ever seems to have torn up or burned a missive, even when begged to. Among the letters between, to, or from John's parents and sisters, or from and to high-ranking officers and ministers and friends and relatives, someone was certain to have said something about John's state of health over in France.
Except that there were no letters for the period. The gap that occurs in the diary occurs in the archive as well. Not just that: there are in fact three separate periods when all letters vanish. One was just after the death of John's older brother, when John was eight. A second was when he'd been sent as an attache to Rome at 23. The gap from July to December 1915 is the third. Oh-- and a large number of John's letters are written in cipher. Curiouser and curiouser.
Bailey set out to find answers, and find them she did. And I have to say, if nothing else, this book illustrates how deadly a job research is. Some people love it, I know, but to plow through the castle's visitors' book that recorded the arrival and departure of everyone who came to Belvoir including the family, day after day, looking for a suggestion that John was there when he was reported as having been somewhere else, is not my notion of a rivetting time.
People in reviews complain that it's not really *gothic*. Mh well, neither is Gormenghast, and this book fantods me quite as badly as that. A slight sense of menace and a brassy sense of unreality breathes from the page. No doubt much of the atmosphere comes from the author's own style. The events could have been given a factual recitation that would have reduced their explosiveness more than a little. But they were pretty explosive, and even more so in that unimaginable time and place 'before the world went all awry.' (One could read this just for the description of life in a ducal palace in the 19th century: the seventh duke used more state, more often, than some kings. At least, I never heard that Edward VII was attended by all his descendants following after him when he walked the ancestral grounds of a Sunday, a tramp of several hours.)
Don't read reviews if you're going to read the book. They spoiler from the get-go. Let Bailey tell you the story in her half-detective half-breathless fashion. Much more fun.