Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
If you have made a life for the dead and gone, then they can see you. You, the biographer, are real to them, in their obdurate, irritating individuality (which you have constructed).
Carolyn Steedman, “On Not Writing Biography,” New Formations, 67 (2009), 24.
I think you know it is coming.
The book I have written about you will be published soon. You will be made, constructed, called into being once more. Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook — your lies and lives underpin my attempt to capture something of British culture in the 1920s and 1930s. Your storytelling animates my efforts to think through what history is, and how it might be made differently.
We have made our lives alongside one another for many years now Netley. Obsession, fantasy, desire (more mine than yours, perhaps) have kept us together. Now, more than ever, I worry.
What if I have got it wrong?
What if I have got you wrong?
Despite everything my craft and training as a historian tell me, it is about you that I worry the most.
It would be easy to get you wrong. A compulsive storyteller — Prince of Tricksters — given to changing names and telling tales to shopkeepers and socialites, journalists and newspaper readers, courtiers and criminologists, you shake off all efforts to know you. You frustrate me, just as you frustrate all those contemporaries who tried to make sense of your restless path through the 1920s and 1930s.
Ordered, dated, and signed, an official form records the birth of Netley Evelyn in July 1903. Ten years later, however, you are transformed by a handwritten annotation: “Col.4 before ‘Herbert Evelyn’ read ‘Herbert Evelyn Bernard Lucas otherwise’ and in Col.5 for ‘Ellen Evelyn’ read ‘Catherine Ellen Lucas (otherwise Evelyn).’”
Netley Lucas: a new name, a new story, a new person?
There are different names on your birth certificate, two marriage certificates, and death certificate. The identity documents through which the modern state tracked citizens from birth to death create the illusion of ordered knowledge, yet somehow you managed to frustrate that process by changing names and telling stories to civil servants. If even the official “truth” of registers and forms is a precarious fiction then our knowledge of the past has shaky foundations.
It is as though you do not want me to know who you are. Do you want me to get it wrong?
I understand that I cannot know you, Netley. You are too elusive, too distant, too strange. You are a temporary figment of my imagination, an artefact of the stories I can tell about you, and the stories you have told about yourself.
That is the point — of the book I have written about you, and of the way that I have come to think about the making of history.
None of that can stop me wanting and wanting to know you, however, as impossible as that might be. And as that time draws near, so my fears of having got you wrong play upon my mind — nagging, taunting, irresolvable.
What have I not seen? What have you not shown me? What if I have got you wrong?
You know all this of course, because right now you can see me, and I have lost sight of you, Netley.