The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret by Catherine Bailey

18079634I loved this book. I wasn’t totally sure what I was getting into when I grabbed this from the library after reading a brief synopsis in a Bas Bleu catalog, but I figured it dealt with the British aristocracy, so I would probably like it.

Catherine Bailey details her trip to Belvoir Castle to look at the family papers of the Dukes who lived there, as she was planning to write a book about World War I and its effect on the villages of England. What she found instead was mystery after mystery surrounding the family itself, perpetuated by the Duke who curated and preserved the very papers she wanted to read. Early on in her stay, she finds that the rooms that contain the papers were sealed after the Duke’s death and had very recently been opened again. Time after time, she is told, “no one goes in those rooms.” She soon discovers why.

The mysteries she can solve are not near as sinister as the title might lead one to believe, but it’s still quite fascinating to read. It reminds me that what we know of history, we only know by what survives. And who decides what survives and why is just as important as the documents themselves.

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals by Gillian Gill

7200265I picked up this book shortly after returning from my UK visit and trip to Kensington Palace. After spending a few hours around their artifacts, I wanted to know more about Victoria and Albert. It sat on my nightstand for most of the academic year, but last week, I realized that it was due today, so I needed to get it read.

Despite the title, the book doesn’t get to their pair’s marriage until 140 pages in, which was frustrating. And even then, it doesn’t really follow a logical chronology. I didn’t find a cogent thesis either as the author simply doesn’t have the proof of the things she posits due to the burning of various diaries, letters and other papers by Victoria’s youngest daughter to preserve her mother’s image as she wanted it.

Try as I might, I just couldn’t slog through the right of the book, so back to the library it went, only half-read.

Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics by Eleanor Herman

16179I saw this book at Barnes & Noble while looking for something else and decided to grab it from the library. I was clearly still on my monarchy kick from my trip to London and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. This book is a companion and/or sequel to the author’s Sex With Kings book, which seems to have gotten good reviews.

Sex with the Queen was an enjoyable read, though it lags at times. Several of the chapter-long anecdotes were well-known to me, such as the wives of Henry VIII; others I wasn’t as familiar with. The focus of the book is not sex between the King and his wife the Queen, but the extramarital sex she was having and the reasons for it. After introducing us to royal life and how most princesses were brought to a foreign country with no friends, the book proceeds with case studies about various royal women. It’s broken up by century, starting with the medieval queens and ending with Diana, Princess of Wales (who had far more affairs that I was aware of). The length of the particular queen’s case study seems to be directly related to the source material available, not necessarily the queen’s significance to history or the significance of the affair.

It’s a fairly quick read, though I stalled out during the chapter on Catherine the Great. She was having sex with a LOT of men and it got very tedious to read about. The author also loves to paint mental pictures with her words, which may or may not be based in fact and squicked me out on more than one occasion. I guess, like one’s parents, I don’t like to think about certain historical figures having crazy and/or disturbing sex.

Unfortunately, the Olympics tripped me up and it took me far longer to finish this book than it should. I have to return it along with the next two on my list so I don’t get a library fine. Next time, I’ll have to request them one at a time from inter-library loan. Lesson learned!

UK: “Yes — happiness wouldn’t be happiness without a violin-playing goat.”

How did June go by so quickly?! It’s been a month since I got home from London and I still miss it! With the Olympic team trials going on right now, the pull to go back is stronger than it’s ever been. I’m also reading the official biography of the Queen Mother, and it’s fun to visualize the castles, landmarks and locations mentioned as I read.

Saturday, May 26, 2012
This morning, I really started to feel the wear of the breakneck pace I’d set for myself in creating this trip’s itinerary. It took me a little longer than I wanted, but Katia and I were able to make the 0830 train to Kings Cross as planned. Katia was once again going to work at the British Library while I ventured off, with plans to meet up in Notting Hill later in the afternoon. I dashed off to the Underground when the train pulled in at 0930, grabbing the Victoria line to Victoria station. I transferred to the District line, which luckily was running smoothly, despite previous troubles, to Westminster Station.

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UK: “London, baby!” “That’s not going to get annoying.”

First, I have to say that it’s hard to believe it’s been an entire month since I was in the UK! I know I’ve been back to work, on another trip and back to work again in that time, but still! I spent much of the early part of this year planning and looking forward to this trip and it’s a little surreal how fast it went by and how far in the past it is already.

I’m very grateful I made myself do a detailed “what I did today” log every time I had any downtime (mostly at lunch and on the train home) because it makes writing up these blog posts so much easier. Thanks for indulging me as I share my vacation with you.

Thursday, May 24, 2012
I woke up later than I wanted to and had a fight with Katia’s shower that it mostly won. For all the things I love about the UK and the British, plumbing is not their strong suit. Bee infestation not withstanding, Katia’s accommodations were perfectly lovely, except for the shower. It only had (minimal) water pressure on the “double hot” setting (it’s electric, which I’d never seen before), and even with the temperature dial turned all the way to cold, the water was scalding. Not being overdramatic when I say I thought I was going to have skin peeling off before I could get my hair washed. Anyway, we decided that since the water pipes were on the outside of the building, the sun was also heating the water in the hours before we got up, making it unbearable. So, after that first day, we started showering at night and it was much more tolerable.

All that to say, I was running behind that morning. Katia got up with me and dutifully walked me to the bus stop, and showed me how to flag it down. Turns out you have to hail the bus like you would a cab, even while standing at the bus stop. I came to enjoy this system and for the first few days after arriving back home in San Francisco, I’d get irrationally annoyed when my bus would slow down or stop at a bus stop and no one would get on the bus.

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