The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse
Piu Marie Eatwell
7th May 2015
Head of Zeus
'In 1898, a widow named Anna Maria Druce had applied for the exhumation of the grave of her late father-in-law, Thomas Charles Druce. Behind her application lay a sensational claim: that Druce, a furniture dealer, had been the alter ego of the eccentric 5th Duke of Portland; and that the Duke had, in 1864, faked the death of his middle-class doppelgänger. When open, Mrs Druce contended, her father-in law's coffin would be found empty. And her fortunate children would be heirs to the Portland millions.'
Sounds like something from a sensation novel, doesn't it? This is a book for my fellow Wilkie fans out there - real life certainly gives his novels a run for their money!
After ten years of high-profile court battles, challenges and more suspense than a person can bear, the go-ahead is given to open Druce's grave. The mystery of whether Druce was in fact the 5th Duke of Portland is the central thread of this book and the big reveal comes at the perfect moment, just as the people involved have drawn you in enough to have you on the edge of your seat. I for one could not predict the outcome, nor could I decide which team I was cheering for. I think Eatwell's writing is responsible for that as she remains objective throughout, laying down the facts and events as they happened and, most importantly, she never gives away too much.
Unless you happen to know the ins and outs of an obscure court case from the late 1800's, it's likely that this book will surprise you in all the best ways. It's a rare thing to experience with historical non-fiction as we so often read about history whilst knowing how it ends. If we read a book about the Titanic we know how it ends, if we read a book about World War One we know how it ends, but Eatwell is in a particular position whereby she can be both storyteller and fact-teller. It is this that makes The Dead Duke such a compelling and lively read.
The variety of Eatwell's research and her skill of blending fact seamlessly with lively storytelling means The Dead Duke becomes more than a study of one court case, it becomes a study of Victorian society and the hypocrisy that undermined daily life at every turn. As someone with a particular interest in this late Victorian period, I was fascinated by what the case revealed about Victorian life. Eatwell adds a further layer to the book by including references to relevant novels of the period - most frequently mentioned are Wilkie (not surprisingly given his own double life) and Dickens.
This is the sort of book that makes me want to dig into a dusty archive somewhere, pull on some of those super cool protective gloves, and find things out. And by things, I definitely mean long buried secrets. Reading The Dead Duke was both an entertaining and an enlightening experience. The tone is just right with the perfect level of wit to match, and the quality of the factual material is enough to leave you with a mild obsession with Victorian courts of law. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that's the best kind of mild obsession to have.
Try this if you liked The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins or Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
Would you enjoy reading about this real-life sensational court case?