The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Legitimate speculations or improper fantasies: where do you draw the line?

Vanity's Consequence, Sovereign, Oct 1925, 623


This sketch by L. Penn Bird was one of the illustrations that accompanied Netley Lucas’s short story “Vanity’s Consequence,” published in the popular Sovereign magazine in October 1925. It shows the New Zealand ex-soldier Joe – respectable married man by day, expert burglar by night – and his unsuspecting wife, Lucy, surprised at home by a knock at the door. Set against Lucas’s text, Bird’s illustration imagines the persistent anxieties that accompany a life of crime, and anticipates the dramatic moment when Joe is arrested.

I like Penn Bird’s sketch. I also have a problem with it. In 1925 Netley Lucas was an ex-crook. Leaving his criminal past behind to pursue a literary career, he often reworked his personal experiences as short stories or ostensibly fictional serials. That wasn’t what he was doing in “Vanity’s Consequence” though: Joe’s life-story, character, and criminal exploits were very different from those Lucas claimed as his own. In Penn Bird’s hands, however, Joe looks identical to photographs and other illustrations of Lucas created around this time.

Here is my problem: Netley Lucas married Elsie Liggins around the same time that “Vanity’s Consequence” was published. He described their relationship in his final autobiography; the couple appear as an anonymous case study in the work of a contemporary criminologist. I have no sense of Elsie’s take on her relationship with the disreputable ex-crook, nor have I found any photographs of the couple together.

Penn Bird’s illustration looks like Netley Lucas; the story of Joe and Lucy almost echoes what could be an account of Netley and Elsie’s marriage. How far can I use this illustration in the book as part of a plausible story of a relationship documented in the archival record? I want the illustration to show Netley and Elsie. Perhaps my desires risk blurring the boundaries between “fact” and “fiction,” legitimate speculations and improper fantasies. Where do you draw the line?

Thanks to Helen Rogers for the wonderful recent blog on “History turned upside down” that prompted this post.


9 comments on “Legitimate speculations or improper fantasies: where do you draw the line?

  1. conviction19c
    August 22, 2014

    I think you use it to show Netley not how he was when at home with Elsie (no doubt not much! ) but to show Netley as a storyteller (lies, tricks, cons, fiction, autobiography). These different guises and persona are all part of the archive. And how others ran with and reworked these different stories, just as you do now – the magazine story, the criminologist…

    But then also to pick apart the fantasies and deceptions by piecing the stories alongside each other. The gaps and overlaps and inconsistencies reveal the self-making and mythologisation at work…

    Something like that!


  2. jbailey2013
    August 23, 2014

    I think you need to talk about the connections between these aspects of Netley’s life. He was always constructing a persona, it seems to me after reading your posts. Therefore as his historian, you have to explore the overlap here. By asking why he chose to use an image which represented him in some form – if only visually – you can also ask whether the wife is Elsie. It is not at all improper!

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  5. Len Liggins
    November 7, 2015

    I am Elsie Liggins’s great nephew, and I have a photo of her and her husband Netley Lucas together plus a lot more information about them.

    • The Trickster Prince
      November 7, 2015

      Wow! That’s amazing – I would love to find out more if you are happy to share.

  6. Len Liggins
    November 8, 2015

    Actually, having done a bit more net-surfing, I realise that anything I knew about them and MORE is already out there. BUT, I do have some photos. Where would you like me to send them to? My email address is

    • The Trickster Prince
      November 8, 2015

      Thanks Len. You can email me on – I’d love to hear any stories that you have about them and to see the photographs. The book I’ve written about Netley Lucas is coming out next year. Thank you!

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