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How to ruin a good story

29 October 2005

12:00 AM

29 October 2005

12:00 AM

The Disappearing Duke Tom Freeman-Keel and Andrew Crofts

Seek Publishing, pp.311, 9.99

Buried within the pages of this book there lies an extraordinary story worth the telling, the bald facts of which require none of the elaboration to which they are here subjected.

In 1896 a certain Anna Maria Druce, of 68 Baker Street in London, petitioned the home secretary to have her late husband’s coffin opened, on the grounds that his funeral in 1864 had been a purposeful sham devoted to ceremonial disposal of an empty box. Mr Druce had not died at all; he had simply wanted to revert to his other identity as the 5th Duke of Portland, of Welbeck Abbey near Worksop. The duke had grown tired of leading a double life and needed to kill off ‘Mr Druce’, the alias he had assumed when running the Baker Street Bazaar, so that he could concentrate his formidable, if fanciful, energies on important construction work at Welbeck which required his continuous presence. Ergo, Mrs Druce was really a widowed duchess, and her son the rightful 6th Duke of Portland, heir to uncountable millions in cash.

The claim was not dismissed out of hand, because there were bizarre circumstances which lent it a degree of plausibility. Both Thomas Druce and His Grace of Portland were unusual men with a number of shared characteristics. They were each secretive and suspicious, desired anonymity and travelled in closed carriages with the blinds drawn, had a passion for building underground, suffered from a skin complaint which erupted in large warts on the nose, were antisocial, blunt, gruff, humourless, literal, and frightened of being greeted or acknowledged. Nowadays one might spot signs of autism, but then such behaviour was attributed to no more than deranged eccentricity.

Indeed, the duke was well-known to fall just short of certifiable lunacy. He was entirely friendless, occupying a remote corner room in his vast palace with a letter-box in the door so that he need never be seen by anyone delivering mail. He ate one chicken a day, half at lunch and half at dinner, alone in his room. If he were ill, no medical man was allowed to feel the ducal pulse; he would shout his symptoms through the door, the doctor shouting his diagnosis back in reply. Servants were instructed that, should perchance they encounter him walking in his park, they should pay no more attention than they would to a tree. When he travelled to London, nobody saw him leave or arrive, his carriage being loaded on to the train at Worksop with himself in it. There was, in truth, nobody in the country better placed to lead a double life, for there were few who could swear what he looked like. Even if one did see him, he was concealed beneath three overcoats, one on top of the other, a high top hat and a huge umbrella.

Furthermore, the dates all fitted neatly. When the duke’s movements are detectable, Thomas Druce’s become mysterious, and when Druce turns up in Baker Street, Portland disappears from view, sometimes for years on end, only to turn up again when Druce himself gets scarce. And following the funeral of Druce in 1864, the Duke of Portland is permanently in residence at Welbeck where he presides over the vast building projects, constructing a ballroom for 2,000 guests, a riding-school for dozens of horses, a library, a billiard-room to hold six tables, a dining-room, all of them underground, connected by miles of subterranean tunnels and all utterly pointless, for none of them was ever used except by His Grace, when travelling like a mole, unseen. Thus did he, by the way, provide employment for thousands of workers, to whose welfare he devoted both attention and money; they did not bother about his sanity. He died in 1789.

So there was enough to make one ponder, and the newspapers took up the Druce case with great energy. Mrs Druce was gradually consumed by her obsession and ended her days in a lunatic asylum, by which time other members of the Druce clan came over from Australia to take up the baton. The case eventually reached the courts, with learned counsel and solemn judge, plus a parade of perjurors to provide rich entertainment for quite a long time. All of which you can read in Theodore Besterman’s sensible account The Druce-Portland Case (1935).

Or you can take a chance with the book under review, wherein conversations are imagined, scenes invented, moods described, and inaccuracies indulged. The authors do not know the difference between a title by right and a title by courtesy. There are no sources, references or bibliography, and but one piece of research — a solitary letter proudly printed opposite the title-page, from the 4th Duke to his teenage son, warning him never to marry. Wise counsel, as it turned out. On top of this, you have to cope with a style stuffed with banalities (‘anyone who was anyone was there’), anachronisms (‘it bothered him not a jot what the chattering classes might be saying’), or plain junk (‘he read it through twice to make sure he hadn’t missed anything before sitting back in the chair with an amazed hiss of escaping air’). What could have been an amusing read is instead a wearisome slog through treacle.

Seek Publishing Craven Arms, Shropshire, Tel: 01588 673731

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