Piu Marie Eatwell has chosen an extraordinary title, and it suits her wonderfully written and researched telling of a true story that unfolded in late Victorian and early Edwardian England wonderfully well.
It’s readable, it’s accessible, and its utterly gripping.
In 1898 a widow named Anna Maria Druce applied for the exhumation of the grave of her late father-in-law, Thomas Charles Druce. Her claim was that he had faked his death 1864 death, because he had been the eccentric 5th Duke of Portland, who had chosen to live a different life under a different name.
Under that name the Duke had worked as a furniture dealer, married, and raised a family. Eventually he decided to end his double life and return to the ducal seat, Welbeck Abbey in Worksop, Nottinghamshire until his death some fifteen years later.
The Duke had never married a distant cousin inherited the title and everything that went with it.
Anna Maria said that her son was the true heir to the Portland estate.
It sounds ludicrous, but the truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction, and there was much that made Anna Maria’s assertion sound entirely plausible.
Each man could be described as eccentric. The 5th Duke of Portland was reclusive, he rarely went out in daylight hours, and he had constructed a labyrinth of underground tunnels beneath his estate where he disappeared for extended periods.
Witnesses testified that T C Druce looked exactly like the Duke, and that he had never spoken of his early life; it emerged that the tastes and patterns of behaviour of the two men were strikingly similar.
Of course, if Anna Maria’s claim was unfounded the executors of the Druce estate had simply to permit the exhumation, to prove that T C Druce had died and that his body was in his tomb to bring all of the legal proceedings and all of the public interest and speculation to an end
They refused, and so a long and complex legal battle that would become a cause célèbre began.
Piu Marie Eatwell brings that case to life. She is a wonderful guide to the times and to the places where her story will play out, making it easy to understand how contemporary observers would have viewed the case with reference to newspaper reports, to other cases they would have known, novels they might have read, and the legal framework and the world that they knew. She introduces everyone who had a part to play carefully, with their history, their character, their connection to the case; that made the human drama that played out fascinating, relatable, and so very engaging.
You might think that you were reading the finest of Victorian sensation novels; such is the quality of the storytelling, the drama of the plot, and the sheer page-turning quality of the whole thing.
The question at the centre of the case – whether T C Druce and the 5th Duke of Portland were two men or one – was beautifully balanced, and as the case twisted and turned, as new claimants and new evidence emerged I could never quite make up my mind. I knew that I could go away and look up the case, and I so wanted to know what would happen, but I resisted because I knew that this was too good a book to spoil.
I also knew that the answer to that question would not be the end; because whatever that answer was there would be more questions.
The resolution of the case comes before the end of the book, and it as that point the author moves smoothly from dramatic storyteller to interested researcher, offering answers to some of the unanswered questions and suggesting what might be answers to others.
That was fascinating, the depth of her interest was evident, and I continued to think of everything I had read long after I put the book down.