|Publisher:||Pan Books Ltd|
William John Cavendish Bentinck Scott, the fifth Duke of Portland, who died in 1879, was a singularly eccentric man. What sets him apart from other famous eccentrics is the fact that he had the wealth to indulge his manias to the fullest. Perhaps his greatest achievement was to have a vast network of underground tunnels built beneath his estate, from which, with his horses and carriages, he could secretly escape to the outside world. On a visit to the Duke’s establishment, which still more or less stands, Mick Jackson became fascinated not only by the tunnels but by the stories that surrounded the memory of this strange man. He began to embroider them with fictional ideas of his own, and with the tales the local people passed on to him. Some of the characters’ names in the book are genuine, as indeed are some of the most bizarre details. The actual narrative is, however, pure invention, filled not only with tales of the Duke, but also with the excitement and discoveries of the age in which he lived, and the mysteries that we are still exploring.
Mick Jackson makes films. It’s no surprise, then, that his first novel, The Underground Man, should be so economically told, the action evoking a mise en scène. The novel takes the form of journal entries interspersed with eyewitness accounts from servants and neighbors. The “Underground Man” portrayed in the novel, William John Cavendish Bentinck-Scott, the Duke of Portland and a resident of Nottinghamshire, England, is mightily eccentric; the man was real (1800-1879), as was his eccentricity. Historical fact: the Duke commissioned eight tunnels on his estate. Present-day fact: if you walk the estate today, you see the skylights—2’ in diameter and 4” thick. But why did he build them?
In the last few days of the Duke’s life, eccentricity burgeons; madness follows. The reader learns that his odd view of the world was shaped by early tragedy, the full truth of which is withheld until the last few pages.
The Underground Man is that most delectable blend of fact and fiction, one in which the intriguing details of a real life are richly explored through imagination.