The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse, by Piu Marie Eatwell, is a meticulously researched account of a true story. At the turn of the nineteenth century a legal case, ‘Druce v Portland’, evolved into the stuff of dreams for the newly emerging tabloid press. The public couldn’t get enough of the family secrets and duplicitous lives being exposed. With a duchy that included a Nottingham estate and large swathes of land in London at stake this battle for a title and the wealth that it bestowed raged for over a decade.
In 1879 the 6th Duke of Portland arrived at Welbeck Abbey in Nottingham having succeeded to the ducal seat following the death of his eccentric second cousin who had ostensibly died without having produced an heir. Twenty years later a middle aged woman approached the church courts in London asking that her late father-in-law’s coffin be exhumed. She claimed that his funeral had been a charade, that the coffin would be found to be empty, and that the man in question had been leading a double life. She claimed that this Victorian businessman, T.C. Druce, had also been the 5th Duke of Portland, that he had sired several children, and that her son should now be the Duke.
The author unfolds the story as it would have emerged at the time. She ensures that the reader understands how other contiguous events would have coloured the public’s perception of the case. With increasing literacy came a demand for a press that entertained as much as informed. Newspapers vied for readers by providing details that laid bare the duplicitous lives of a supposedly moral society. This case offered it all: secret mistresses, illegitimate children, double identities, eccentric habits, abandoned wives, and the prospect of wealth and standing beyond most people’s dreams.
The publicity surrounding the case brought witnesses and claimants from around the globe. Each of these characters is introduced complete with their circumstances, background and personal histories. As well as court transcripts and newspaper articles the author has studied birth and death records, correspondence, photographs and notes held by the police, legal teams and the Portland estate. Much of this evidence was never presented in court and was subsequently locked away, remaining classified for the next eighty years.
What can now be told is a tale as convoluted, complicated and contrary as any fictional crime novel. It is a fascinating snapshot of life at the time involving as it does the aristocracy, their staff, the emerging middle classes, those who travelled to find a better life, and the unfortunates who were abandoned penniless to cope as best they could. Laws may have changed since that time but the role of newspapers in gathering and spreading misinformation looks all too familiar as does the public’s appetite for celebrity and gossip.
This is history brought alive. Unlike so many accounts there is no glossing over the weaknesses of the wealthy. What is known is presented in fascinating detail that the reader may decide for themselves why each character acted as they did. A colourful story written with flair that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.