Immediately I read the title of this book, I knew I would love it! In a fascinating interview, Paris-based writer, Piu Marie Eatwell, shares her experiences of the quest to find out the truth about the 5th Duke of Portland and of how she brought this sensational Edwardian case back to life:
What drew your attention to this intriguing story, and why did you decide to write about it?
I was looking around for a new subject for a book – always tricky, as so many of the famous Victorian cases have been written up now – when I stumbled on the story of the Druce-Portland case in a 1970s book called ‘Victorian Scandals’, which I found in a second-hand bookshop. I was immediately hooked.
You mention that much of your research was based on the Portland Collection at the University of Nottingham. Was it difficult to find out more about T.C. Druce, in comparison to the Duke? If so, how did you overcome the challenges?
The Portland collection at the University of Nottingham contains the entire archive of the Dukes of Portland, dating back to the seventeenth century. However, it also contains a vast collection of documents on the Druce-Portland case, inherited from the 6th Duke’s solicitors, who handled the case for him. The lawyers investigated every detail about TC Druce, so there was actually quite a lot of information about him. However, even they could not locate a birth certificate for him: I suspect there wasn’t one, and Druce remains a man of mystery to the end.
The family histories and court cases, by their nature, are very complex, yet you succeeded in recounting them in a narrative that was easy to follow and gripping throughout. How did you achieve that?
Whilst the book is complicated, it is actually a drastic simplification of the actual events. I had to cut out big sections of the story – for example, a whole sub-drama involving the Druce-Portland companies – because they were simply too complex to be included. It definitely helped, in simplifying the story, that I am a lawyer – it was easier for me to focus on the important stuff and leave out extraneous detail.
There is a multiplicity of fascinating characters in this history. Do you have a favourite? Or, is there a particular individual with whom you identify more closely?
I have to admit to having a secret crush on the 5th Duke of Portland – I was so sorry to leave him at the end of the book, as he had been living by my side for close onto a year! I found him a simply fascinating character: brooding, romantic, eccentric, somehow unfulfilled. I still haven’t really figured out what made him ticked, or the real roots of his extraordinary eccentricity. He seems to have been destined for greatness, but wasted in a way.
Anna Maria Druce is a very controversial figure and more obscure, in many ways, than her father-in-law and the duke. What do you feel was her main motivation for contesting T.C. Druce’s identity and the veracity of his death?
It’s true, Anna Maria is a very difficult character to understand. Was she plain mad? Or was she a grasping adventuress, as made out by the supporters of the 6th Duke of Portland? Probably, there are elements of both. I am sure, however, that – like the later claimant, George Hollamby Druce – she really believed that TC Druce was the 5th Duke of Portland. And, given the deceptions and intricacies in the lives of the two men, can one blame her?
At the end of the book, you recount your visits to the Portland Collection and Welbeck Abbey. Were there any other locations featured in the book that you weren’t able to visit, but would have liked to?
I visited as many of the locations featured in the book as possible: I know the area around London’s old Law Courts and Lincoln’s Inn quite well anyway from my time as a lawyer, and I was lucky enough to have a private, guided tour of Welbeck Abbey, which included a glimpse at the 5th Duke’s famous tunnels. One place I did not, sadly, get to visit is Australia – I should have loved to see the wild bush explored by George Hollamby Druce as he sallied out as a young lad, with his dog at his heel and his billy can on his shoulder. However, accounts in the contemporary newspapers gave details vivid enough for me to recount the scene in sufficient detail – even down to his moonlit wallaby hunts!
‘The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse’ is your second book. Do you have plans for a third, and can you reveal what it might be about?
I like to alternate French-themed books (I live in Paris) with historical true crime. My next book is one about the French, and is due out at the end of the year. Longer term, I’m planning another historical true crime mystery, but on a very different subject and in a totally different period – a 1940s murder in California! This time, however, I fully intend to pay a visit….
This is a truly gripping book and I would highly recommend it. Many thanks to Piu for the excellent interview and to Leanne Coombes for a copy.