The Trickster Prince

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

What’s in a name?


I sent a book manuscript out into the world, and it came back with a different name.

It left me as The Prince of Tricksters: Cultures of Confidence in 1920s and 1930s Britain. When it returned, only three weeks later, it introduced itself as Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook. Confident, boastful, it now had a name brimming over with swaggering aspiration.

It went out into the world as something that was mine, and came back as almost (but not quite) a stranger. I have thought of the book as The Prince of Tricksters for many years now. I have lived with Cultures of Confidence – leaning on them, depending on them, to shape the development of my ideas. That is the name under which the book has moved through grant applications, job applications, and blogs.

It left me as one thing, and now that has gone.

Perhaps this change of names was inevitable – perhaps I should have expected it.

I wrote the book about a man who made a name for himself in Britain and beyond in the 1920s and 1930s. That is not quite right: he made many names for himself. Telling stories of his aristocratic status, criminal and literary scams, his lives and those of Britain’s royal family, he found success and scandal in equal measure. Sometimes he was known as Netley Lucas, but he also called himself Albert Marriott, Lady Charlotte Cavendish and more – the list goes on, perhaps there are forty names, though I am still not sure.

Like the stories they bear, names are purposeful, creative, forward looking. Carefully chosen, “Lieutenant Francis Deligny” carried a patrician aura reflected in its owner’s personal style. Prefaced with a title, names like this brought pleasurable opportunities.

Names do work.

Perhaps this change of names was inevitable, then. I should have realized that when my book manuscript came before its first big production meeting at the University of Chicago Press it would come out the other side changed – and changed for the better.

Houlbrook’s First Rule of Working with Publishers: the professionals always know best when it comes to how a book sounds and looks. Stop being precious, ditch the hubris, listen and follow. My book manuscript came back with an unfamiliar name (one I still stumble over when I try to say it aloud, desperately trying it out for sound) but it seems more comfortable under its new tag. Most important of all: the new name does work – it intrigues, it plays with ideas of what is “true,” it carries an aura of the noir. It says what the book is about. My Mum and Dad prefer it.

Houlbrook’s First Rule of History (you’ll have heard this one before): all writing is co-writing. As our books enter the world they are the product of a collective endeavour – of many conversations and collaborations like this.

So this is to introduce you to Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook, and to say thank you in advance to the production team at the University of Chicago Press. In a moment of nostalgia I might find myself missing Cultures of Confidence, but I’m quickly growing to love the book’s new name.

2 comments on “What’s in a name?

  1. richmonde
    June 4, 2015

    I’d have gone for “Netley Lucas: Gentleman Crook”. 😉

  2. Pingback: Giving it a name | On the archival trail of William Macintosh

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