19 May 2015

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse—Piu Marie Eatwell

I don’t usually The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpsedo non-fiction, but I made an exception for The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse, and I’m sure glad I did.

The blurb is in contempt of this court:

The extraordinary story of the Druce-Portland affair, one of the most notorious, tangled and bizarre legal cases of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

In 1897 an elderly widow, Anna Maria Druce, made a strange request of the London Ecclesiastical Court: it was for the exhumation of the grave of her late father-in-law, T.C. Druce.

Behind her application lay a sensational claim: that Druce had been none other than the eccentric and massively wealthy 5th Duke of Portland, and that the - now dead - Duke had faked the death of his alter ego. When opened, Anna Maria contended, Druce’s coffin would be found to be empty. And her children, therefore, were heirs to the Portland millions.

The legal case that followed would last for ten years. Its eventual outcome revealed a dark underbelly of lies lurking beneath the genteel facade of late Victorian England.

The Dead Duke –- I’m really too busy a person to write out the title in its entirety –- is one of those real-life stories to file under you couldn’t make it up, a kind of true life melange of The Prestige, Bleak House and Rich Housewives of Portland Square. It is proof positive that the Victorians, terrific engineers and Empire builders though they undoubtedly may have been, were quite, quite potty.

Eatwell applies a polite sprinkling of artistic license to colour her prose with the odd descriptive detail, but mostly the story is told in a linear fashion, with a number of entertaining diversions. It’s a story that jinks and twists as a colourful multitude of Victorian scoundrels, chancers and ne’er do wells crawl out from under various rocks to chance their arms in the tangled legal system.

The court case, to decide whether the reclusive Duke of Portland –- the so-called ‘burrowing Duke’ for his habit of building tunnels and rooms beneath his estate –- lived a double-life as a wealthy businessman, managed to drag on for a decade. Once T.C. Druce’s adamant daughter-in-law opened proceedings, a motley collection of chancers flocked from various parts of the globe like moths to a bulb to get involved. Druce’s children energetically fought the claim, and no wonder. If the case ultimately doesn’t go in the direction you hoped, it—and the author’s thorough research—throws up enough skeletons and surprises to make the Prince Consort’s waxed moustache twitch.

As you can imagine, the newspapers eagerly followed every lurid twist and turn in the case. The story was seized upon by whippersnapper young newspaper The Daily mail –- described at the time as ‘written by office boys for offices boys.’ Goodness only knows the bitter vitriol the Victorian ladies and gentlemen would have heaped upon the litigants should they have had access, one hundreds years early, to an online comments forum.

The Druce case illustrated the Victorian preoccupation with secrecy and duality –- that nagging sense that aristocracy and privilege was often a sinister façade for a degenerate lifestyle. Many of the claimnants and witnesses in the case were banged up in lunatic asylums, others went bankrupt, and Eatwell’s narrative features often unwilling cameos by noted Victorians.

The Dead Duke is gripping stuff. It’s hugely readable, written—and best read—with an eyebrow arched high, and beautifully researched. It’s proof, as if we needed more, that if it’s strangeness you’re looking for, fiction should never attempt to play billiards against the truth.

The Dead Duke, etc, is available right now in hardback. Many thanks to Head Of Zeus for the review copy. I am pleased to announce to the court that Piu Marie Eatwell takes the stand later in the week to answer probing questions about the fascinating Druce case, so make sure you’re in the gallery for that.