The purpose of the kind of popular historical writing exemplified in The Dead Duke, by Piu Marie Eatwell, is to present a period or subject to a non specialized audience in an accessible way. Hopefully by the end of the work the reader’s genuine curiosity is piped and they can go on to explore the era further. Taking this function as a guide, The Dead Duke does remarkably well at engrossing the reader in the subject matter. The book covers a legal case with bona fide mystery, and lurid exciting elements; a crazed asylum bound plaintiff, and a philandering businessman at the heart of the Victorian commercial world to name a few. Eatwell is also able to connect the case to several areas of general historical interest and engages with the issues present in the historiography of the period. However, while the subject matter is enticing, the writing and structure are lacking. A disappointing problem for a book meant to be approachable by all.
For a book about, at times a very intricate, legal case The Dead Duke can be remarkably absorbing. To give a brief sketch of the narrative, in the late 19th Century several rival descendants of a successful, and mysterious, long dead businessman, T.C. Druce, tried to prove that he was in fact a secret persona of the late childless 5th Duke of Portland, and thus claim the aristocratic title and inheritance. This ever-shifting group of descendants tried at various times to exhume Mr. Druce, and establish through witnesses that the duke and the businessman were one and the same. Because of the personal nature of the case and the necessity of delving into both men’s backgrounds, there are many fascinating components of the story sure to keep a reader entertained. The 5th Duke of Portland was an archetypal Victorian eccentric, who constructed massive tunnels under his stately home, and communicated with his servants by letter even while in residence. Druce was also a curious and reserved character with a personal life replete with odd habits, as well as mistresses and illegitimate children. Moving from the more lurid elements, The Dead Duke also discusses how the case challenged Victorian ideas of morality, class, and gender, for example how problematic it was that the lower middle class descendants of T.C. Druce could, for all their rough edges, be the heirs to one of the noblest families in the country. To her credit Eatwell is able to draw greater, more interesting historical points out of a very particular case, while including exciting and enticing personal details.
Where the book is lacking is the writing. The prose is mostly fine, though the author has a weakness for cliffhanging clichés. The main problem is the structure of the chapters. Eatwell conforms to an almost military uniformity in the organization of her chapters, resulting in sometimes confusing or superfluous passages. Each chapter begins with a Simon Schama-esque dramatic scene; the thoughts and miniscule actions of the historical figures are described as if they were characters in a novel. Eventually in each chapter there is a turn, from this novelistic writing to more concrete historical points meant to set the scene of the previous action, however, the transition is not always fluid, one easily finds oneself flipping back and forth though a chapter thinking “wait, how did we get here?” This writing technique also leads to a few superfluous moments in the book. So great is the need to follow the structure, and give a general historical background, that in one chapter Eatwell gives the reader a short history of the Victoria gold rush, an event with almost no bearing on the narrative. The main problem with the structure though is that it is boring in its repetition, especially when, in a kind of gonzo turn, Eatwell describes her own process of research in the same style. There is no variation and as a result one feels that they can guess what is going to come next, and in a book meant for a non-specialist audience these faults cannot be forgiven. The book needs to be not only interesting in its subject matter, but readable too.
To summarize, The Dead Duke covers an interesting bit of legal history, and is able to give a wider understanding of the Victorian era through the study of the Druce –Portland case. One must plod through the repetitive writing to get at these curiosities, but if one has an interest in the period this slog will probably be worth it.