Having greatly enjoyed Matt Houlbrook’s biography of Netley Lucas, I have now been taking a look at Lucas’s second autobiography, an odd book called My Selves, ‘by Netley Lucas and Evelyn Graham’ (Graham was the name under which Lucas achieved considerable success writing royal biographies). The book was published in 1934, after Lucas’s release from prison. It was the last of his books; after this he lapsed into literary silence (unless he had other identities which even the industrious Matt Houlbrook has failed to discover).
I was most interested, of course, in what he (they?) had to say about Not So Quiet…, the war novel he commissioned from Evadne Price (under a third identity – that of Albert E. Marriott, publisher). His version of events differs from hers, so I’ll print some of it here:
One day as I was smoking a meditative cigarette and looking out of my office window towards Piccadilly Circus, I had a brain wave of the time that comes only once in a while. I had been thinking of and envying the success of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ Why not have a similar book from a woman’s point of view – a woman’s experiences at the Front? I dashed into Dick’s office and propounded the idea.
‘Boy, it’s great, he said. ‘What shall we call it?’
I thought a minute. Then in a flash…
‘We’ll call it “NOT so Quiet on the Western Front.’ Thus was conceived an idea that brought in £6000. I drove off post-haste to the offices of a firm of literary agents, and put up my idea to them. They were full of enthusiasm. ‘Who have you got who could doa book like that?’ I asked. They thought for a minute.
‘I’ve got just the woman,’ one of them said.
‘Get her to come and see me,’ I said, and so upon the following day one of the most capable women journalists in Fleet Street arrived. We talked it over and she agreed to do the book. I fixed the contract, with the usual clause that we should have half the money from the sale of all subsidiary rights. My Authoress then went away to write the book. In a month it was completed, and after some pruning and altering, was ready for the press under the title of ‘Not So Quiet…’ by ‘Helen Zenna Smith, a nom-de-plume which she and I coined between us.
After a lengthy passage in which he details his cleverness in disposing of subsidiary rights to the book, he writes:
Six weeks later we published the book in England, and in three months sold 30,000 copies. That one idea of mine, conceived on a sunny summer’s afternoon, earned in all, well over £6,000. I think I can say that I am at least half responsible for the ‘making’ of ‘Helen Zenna Smith’ as a writer. We followed up ‘Not So Quiet…’ with a sequel, ‘Women of the Aftermath,’ but although we got £1000 again from the People for the serial rights, Marriott Limited went into liquidation before the book was published.
I included an account of Price’s version of the events leading to publication in my paper here. Both she and Lucas tell the story in a way that shows themselves off to advantage. In Lucas’s story there is no mention of the ‘Not So Quaint’ idea; he knows exactly what he wants from the start. In his version, Price is ‘one of the most capable women journalists in Fleet Street’, capable of producing a pastiche of authenticity to order; in her account, as given fifty years later, she is someone inspired by ‘All Quiet’, who is keen to tell the truth about the war. Her version certainly does not give Lucas joint credit for the book.
Both are unreliable witnesses. Netley L. was utterly dishonest, and also keen to boast about his financial acumen, so relishes his role as the brains behind the enterprise. Evadne P.’s account was given in an interview many years later, in which she is confused about many of the factual details of her life. For example, she says she had published eleven ‘Jane’ books before ‘Not So Quiet…’, where as only one of the series had appeared before then. Her account of her life is wonderfully plausible, but tends to fall apart when any of the details are actually tested. So it all gets more confusing…