Eccentric Aristocrats & Double Lives: Piu Marie Eatwell on her book The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse
A glance at the title of this work lets the reader know there’s going to be some strange goings on, but what’s remarkable is that they’re all true – Piu Marie Eatwell has penned a work of nonfiction, not a novel (though, while reading, I kept thinking this material would make a great one). Eatwell says, “It’s true that, in the case of this book, truth really IS stranger than fiction! I happened on this story by complete chance. I was rummaging around a second-hand bookshop, looking for a case to write about, when I found an old ’70s book called Victorian Scandals. It included a chapter on the Druce case and the mysterious, hugely eccentric 5th Duke of Portland. I was immediately hooked!”
So what exactly is “the Druce case”? The gist: in the late 1890s, a widow, one Anna Maria Druce, caused quite a stir when she petitioned the courts to exhume the grave of her father-in-law, Thomas Charles (T.C.) Druce. Why? Because she claimed he was not, as everyone thought, simply the very wealthy owner of a London department store, but instead, none other than His Grace, the reclusive William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland. Could this seemingly outrageous claim be proved? The courts, it seemed, were willing to let Anna Maria try. If Druce were the duke, then millions hung in the balance, not to mention the title and all the trappings of dukedom. This would be the beginning of an investigation that would last decades, uncover hidden wives and illegitimate children, see pretenders and contenders come out of the woodwork, and spark a media frenzy.
On its face, the fact that Anna Maria Druce, a woman of limited means who appears less than mentally stable given the things she said on record in court, could have gotten where she did with her petitions seems almost impossible. Eatwell elaborates, “It’s true, you do wonder about the sanity of Anna Maria Druce. But – as I point out in the book – this was a time when many people, even public figures like the writers Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins, felt the need to adopt a secret, double-identity in order to escape the moral strictures of the time. And there had long been rumours about the deep eccentricity of the 5th Duke. It was entirely possible that he had lived a double-life, hidden deep in his network of underground tunnels below the family seat of Welbeck Abbey.”
While this concept of double-lives is certainly not a new one, as illustrated by half the “scandals” seen in tabloids today, it flourished in the Victorian period in a unique way. Eatwell notes that such behavior was actually a by-product of Victorian society: “The Victorian period was one of extreme repression of emotions and expression, in particular anything relating to sexuality. Everybody felt obliged to adopt, in Oscar Wilde’s terminology, a ‘high moral tone.’ This meant that subversive or more complex urges were driven underground, and forced a lot of people to adopt hidden or ‘secret’ lives, in order to express a part of themselves that society would consider forbidden. It was an age of prudery, and ultimately, hypocrisy – a theme that runs throughout the book.”
This book contains a number of historical persons who make for fascinating character studies. There are charlatans and sleazy lawyers, relatives in fear of being dispossessed, even rough-and-tumble contenders for the dukedom from the Australian outback. Eatwell says, “My favourite character is probably the 5th Duke. His eccentricity, his loneliness, and what hidden passions drove him to construct the extraordinary underground maze beneath Welbeck Abbey fascinate me. My least favourite character is probably Thomas Charles Druce – a dastardly blackguard if ever there was one!”
When comparing a work such as The Dead Duke to, say, a novel, Eatwell notes that “one of the most limiting – and yet at the same time most exhilarating – aspects to writing nonfiction is that you cannot, as a writer, make up an ending. In some ways, I was a little let-down by the initial results of my research. But the underlying, deeper truth that I uncovered behind the whole affair was, as so much in this book, more amazing than any ending I could have made up!” I won’t ruin it for you by elaborating on how everything turns out in the end – what Eatwell’s meticulous research actually uncovered about the case and all involved. For that, you’ll need to pick up this interesting look at a Victorian cause célèbre and find out for yourself.
About the contributor: Bethany Latham is an associate professor, librarian, author, editor, and reviewer. She serves as managing editor of the Historical Novels Review.