Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook is published by the University of Chicago Press in July 2016.
Prince of Tricksters starts with a simple question: how can we be confident in something? This is a recurrent philosophical and ethical question, but it is also always an historical question, shaped by social relations and cultural forms that are time and place-specific. It became a compelling question in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. The legacies of war and the accelerating pace of peacetime change made confidence and authenticity prominent yet precarious values.
Unraveling the lies and lives of the confidence trickster, discredited journalist, and scandalous royal biographer Netley Lucas, Prince of Tricksters explores the crises of confidence that wracked Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Lucas’s prolific storytelling repeatedly questioned the possibility of trust in the identity of individuals and the ‘truth’ of popular journalism and publishing. In tracing how authenticity was constructed and confidence sought in everyday social encounters and diverse forms of mass culture, the book suggests new ways of thinking about Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Highlighting the resonances between crime, consumerism and monarchy, allows us to see how questions of confidence abraded the boundaries between society, culture and politics. Netley Lucas, gentleman crook, gives us a way of integrating historiographies and histories that have usually been treated as discrete.
Prince of Tricksters is also my attempt to show how history might be made differently — to explore different ways of writing about the past. In pursuing a prolific storyteller given to tall tales and changing names I have been forced to acknowledge the limits of what we can know as historians. The book tries to recognise rather than conceal those limits. Taking its cue from Lucas himself, it plays with the boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘faction’, and switches between different forms of writing. Serious historical analysis is mixed up with fragments of newspaper gossip, romantic fiction, and a screenplay. This has been my way of exploring how history itself is a kind of narrative — a way of telling stories with its own disciplinary codes and conventions.
The book grew out of my desire for a debonair gentleman crook and his flamboyant lives, but I had to find ways of justifying the stories I wanted to tell about him.