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Underground Manby Mick Jackson
Based on the real life of William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, the fifth Duke of Portland, The Underground Man explores the psychology behind an eccentric, reclusive man who is just a bit too delicate to navigate society. Welbeck Abbey, his grand castle in Nottinghamshire, became well known for its maze of tunnels running in all directions underneath the castle grounds. However, the tunnels were only a part of his manic push to build an underground space. Employing thousands of men over many years, the duke also constructed an underground library, horse stable, and ballroom — which was the largest in England (he failed to see the absurdity of building such a massive ballroom for a man who abhorred contact with others). Conveniently, the duke had trap doors installed in his rooms for easy access to the tunnels below.
Living in isolation in a tiny part of his giant castle, the duke wouldn't speak directly to staff members and communicated by passing notes through little slots cut into the walls of his rooms. He saw no one except his butler, not even his own physician. His staff was instructed to ignore his presence if they happened upon him in the hallway. If he had to go to London, he was sealed in a carriage and proceeded unobserved throughout the entire journey. All of the rooms he occupied in the castle were painted pink. When outside, the duke wore a hat 2 feet high along with several layers of clothing, including two or more coats. After his death, hundreds of boxes were found in one room, each containing one wig. As Bill Bryson states in his travel book Notes from a Small Island, "This was, in short, a man worth getting to know."
Yet the duke had a seemingly normal beginning, including an admirable military career, a brief political career as a Tory MP, and an unrequited love early in his life. He was kind to his employees and was the largest employer in the area during the height of his estate's construction. He had an ice-skating rink built on his property and encouraged his staff to use it. He provided all of his construction workers with an umbrella and a donkey.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1997, The Underground Man digs deep beneath the surface of the duke's eccentricities, showing him to be a sensitive soul, and prods into his childhood to try to illuminate his strange actions. As odd as the details are, Mick Jackson has no trouble encouraging his reader to fall in love with the duke. Sweet, amusing, and befuddled, the fifth Duke of Portland is a character you will never forget.
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