William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, Fifth Duke of Portland, was seriously weird. His unusual renovations to Welbeck Abbey, the family manor house, were notorious in his day. Employing hundreds of local workers and craftsmen, the Duke constructed a warren of tunnels connecting the house with the stables, the coach road, and even the railway station in town.
Intensely shy, the secretive Duke was rarely seen by most of his staff, who were instructed to ignore him, pretending that he wasn’t there, unless he spoke to them first. When he traveled to London, he rode in a coach through his maze of tunnels, emerging only at the station, where a flat car waited to carry his dark-curtained coach to the city.
This strange nobleman and his mental deterioration are the subjects of The Underground Man, Mick Jackson’s highly-fictionalized study of a singular Victorian character, which was a Booker Prize finalist after the novel’s publication in 1997.
I never would have heard of either the Duke or the novel if I had not been reading Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, which contains an account of Bryson’s visit to Welbeck Abbey, where he attempted, unsuccessfully, to tour what was at the time of his visit a British military training facility. Bryson’s fascination with the Duke and his story led me to search out the novel.
The Underground Man is a work of imaginary fiction, with little reference to the Duke’s actual history, other than his tunneling. It reimagines the Duke’s life from the completion of the tunnels to his death. Although Jackson includes infrequent accounts from the servants, the Duke’s journal provides most of the novel’s content. The matter-of-fact style of the journals increasingly contrasts with the Duke’s destabilizing mind, as we follow his descent into an interior mental space that is both certainly mad and yet strangely coherent.
It’s the Duke’s unique point of view that raises the novel beyond the neo-Gothic madman’s tale into which it could easily have descended. His mental exploration of the relationship between outside and inside, above and below ground, has a calm inevitability about it. That he believes himself to be on a journey of self-discovery and liberation rather than on a one-way trip to an inner Hell serves to heighten our sense of the thoroughness of his madness.
Jackson employs the obvious symbolic opportunities of his story effectively, and even though the reader is rarely surprised and seldom taken aback by the physical and psychological events of the novel, there is a feeling of appropriateness, both in the evocative imagery throughout and in the shocking action at the novel’s end.
To my mind, this is not a great book — but it is a good one, and worth reading, especially if you can read it in one or two sittings, since the growing disconnect between tone and content provides so much of the novel’s force.