The tale of a sensational trial that riveted Edwardian England for more than a decade.
BBC documentary producer Eatwell (They Eat Horses, Don’t They: The Truth About the French, 2014, etc.) brings her skills as a researcher and training as a lawyer to this engrossing tale of mystery, lies, and intrigue. Central to the plot is the fifth Duke of Portland, a man of startling eccentricities. Possibly because he suffered from a skin disease, he refused to be seen, even by his servants and household staff, communicating with them by letters left in boxes affixed to each room’s door. He built a huge labyrinth of underground tunnels to enable him to travel through his property without detection. In addition, he insisted that newspapers be ironed before handed to him and coins washed. When he died in 1879, his cousin inherited the dukedom and set about revitalizing the house that the duke had left barely furnished and in disrepair. To the sixth duke’s surprise, however, in 1897, a widow came forth, petitioning the court to exhume the grave of her father-in-law, a London department store owner. He had not died, she claimed; he really was the fifth duke, who had led a double life and who reverted to his real identity after a coffin was buried, filled not with the remains of her father-in-law but with lead. Her son, therefore, was his real heir. To reveal the outcome of the 10-year legal wrangling would be to spoil Eatwell’s cliffhanging narrative. Each chapter ends with a question unresolved, a discovery soon to be made, or a character (there are more than 40) gasping in disbelief.
Besides recounting years of subterfuge, media hype, greed, and fraud, Eatwell throws light on Victorian and Edwardian society: aristocratic entitlement and power, numbing poverty, political corruption, and many secret lives.