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