Tag Archives: The Dead Duke His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse

The Intel: Piu Marie Eatwell

Piu Marie EatwellIf macabre Victorian litigation is your thing then you’ll be kicking yourself for forgetting to read our review of The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse. But don’t despair, take your head out of your hands. Simply scroll down a bit, a little bit more, nearly there, to see that triumphant review. Alternatively, click here.

The Druce Portland affair was one of the most drawn-out legal sagas the Uk has ever seen, and Piu weaves an eccentric tale of tunnelling dukes, desperate widows and dirty, rotten scoundrels, spanning the Victorian and Edwardian eras. So — and you know where we’re going with this by now — Piu is here to give us the intel on the whole lurid affair.

Born in Calcutta and raised in the UK, Piu has lived in Paris for the last decade, where she found the inspiration for her first book, about the French, called They Eat Horses, Don’t They? Liu talks double lives, intensive research and slogging…

Tell us about The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse

The Dead Duke, his Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse is a historical true-crime story. It re-tells the fantastic story of the alleged double life of the 5th Duke of Portland, a Victorian eccentric who burrowed a maze of underground passages beneath the family seat of Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire. A celebrated court case of the time alleged that the Duke had lived a double life as a businessman in Baker Street. It dragged on for ten years. Was it true?

The story has as many twists and turns as a novel —  how did you come across this Victorian cause celebre? 

I was snooping around some second-hand bookshops looking for a new story, when I came across this in a tatty, 1970s book about ‘Victorian Scandals.’ I was hooked.

What does the whole affair tell us about the Victorians and Edwardians, do you think?

It tells us a lot about the duplicity and hypocrisy of the era. The Victorians prided themselves on their strict sense of ‘morality’ and high standards of honour in public and private life: the reality, of course, was very different.

The book is packed with a delicious cast of scoundrels and chancers – which of the participants in the case really came alive for you as you researched them?

I have to admit to a secret crush on the 5th Duke of Portland. Even after all this research, I still don’t know what made him ‘tick’. Why did he dig hundreds of miles of tunnels under his estate? Was he a genius, or just plain crazy?

The Dead Duke, The Secret Wife And The Missing CorpseHow long did it take you to research the affair?

It took me about a year to research and write the book, with three visits to the Manuscripts and Special Collections Department at Nottingham University to review and make notes on the documents. Following such a long and complicated case was a huge undertaking.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Dedication and self-motivation. Also, the sheer craft of writing. People tend to think of writing as ‘inspiration’, but actually it’s about 5% inspiration and 95% sheer slog: writing, re-writing, putting pen to paper when you’re tired, complying with deadlines, being rejected, and plodding on. I always say – when people tell me they have a ‘book in them’ – to write three, rip them up, put them in the bin, and then write another! If you can do that, you might have a chance….

Who are the authors you admire, and why? 

There are so many! I tend to be influenced by people I’m reading at any one time. At the moment I’m reading a lot of American literature as research for my next book (set in 1940s California), so I would say Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), and Truman Capote (In Cold Blood). All of them capture the strange ‘doubleness’ of America: on the one hand the American dream, and on the other, the American nightmare.

Give me some advice about writing…

All the points made above about craft, determination, and diligence.

What’s next for you?

I like to alternate true crime with books about France (where I live). So I’ve got a new trivia book about France coming out next Spring, and a project on the Elizabeth Short/ “Black Dahlia” murder, which took place in Los Angeles in 1947, in the pipeline.

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.