Dress Down Sunday: Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen

published 1934


Hell Said the Duchess

At this Mrs. Nautigale’s expression became so distraught that it was as though the powerful edifice of her face was being demolished with a view to structural alterations. As she dived once again on to the helpless reclining Mary, and as Miss Gool left the room, Wingless took the opportunity of doing very quickly and quietly what he thought he had to do.

Signing to Mrs. Nautigale to keep Mary occupied, his fingers searched deftly among the flimsy feminine things in her drawers and cupboards. From beneath a cloud of dainty knickers, the touch of which made him feel like a bull among ospreys, he drew out and slipped into his breast-pocket a slender blade about six inches in length curiously attached to a short handle which had been encased in rubber.

Then, kissing Mary affectionately and telling Mrs. Nautigale not to let her out of her sight until she was safely in Dr. Lapwing’s charge, he left the house for Scotland Yard.

commentary: We haven’t heard the last of these knickers. The following events are part of some riots in London.
Thus the charming but private details of a gentlewoman’s bedchamber became the derided objects of the rioters’ lust, and the coarse hands of the mob delighted to destroy the flimsy fabrics of a duchess’s intimate toilet. While London, on that wretched day, was not spared the degrading spectacle of Englishmen wearing in broad daylight a lady’s knickers as fancy headgear. 

But worse was yet to come…presently when a column of Fascists marched into Grosvenor Square from Carlos Place they were met by the disgusting spectacle of common men and women wearing on their heads the chamber-pots of some of the proudest families in England.
THESE were the images from the book I really wanted to show – but sadly no suitable pictures could be found.

I got hold of this book after recently reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links, which begins with a discussion of the 'Hell! Said the duchess' phrase – supposedly invented by a writer as the perfect eye-catching opening to a story, combining snob and shock value. (Christie gives it as a ‘well-known anecdote’.) I was fairly certain Arlen (a blog favourite) had written something with that title – but it turned out to be 11 years after the Christie. And it seemed like a good idea to read it.

It’s a novella, strange and discomfiting but very funny. There’s a spot of alternative history – London in the 30s has been taken over by Mosleyite Fascists, though this doesn’t seem essential to the plot. The Duchess, who has the excellent name of Mary Dove*, is a respectable young widow of the finest morals, a beautiful lady who does good works and goes to bed early. Except… It seems that she (or someone who looks just likes her) is out and about misbehaving in louche parts of London. And then things get worse – murders are committed by a sex-crazed Jane the Ripper:
It was, of course, obvious that this female fiend could not be an Englishwoman.
But soon it can no longer be ignored that there is evidence against the Duchess:
“It might be faked. It must be faked. Here is one of the best-bred and loveliest women in the world——” 

“So was Messalina.” 

“I am not talking about a Frenchwoman, but about the most gracious lady in England…”

The investigation goes forward – there is some funny business about the Duchess’s maid, and there is a very sinister man around:
“…He was proved beyond all doubt to be a man more gross and more depraved than any other man you ever heard of.” 

“What were these offences, Crust?” 

“Sir, I would not sully your ears.” 

“You do an injustice to the Colonel’s clubs,” said Icelin. “His ears have been sullied by experts.” 

“The man,” said Crust indignantly, “was a sapphist and a nymphomaniac.” 

“Must be an acrobat,” said Wingless. 
“He means,” said Icelin, “sadist and erotomaniac.” 

“Sir,” said Crust warmly, “that’s as may be, but this man Axaloe was a downright shocking chap, that’s what he was. You never heard of such goings on, and what those poor ladies must have suffered—or should have suffered if they had been brought up right—doesn’t bear thinking of…” 
 (I suppose there were writers of the era who might have expressed these sentiments entirely seriously, so I should point out that there can be no doubt of Arlen’s satirical intent throughout.)

The climax comes at a cottage in Leatherhead – Arlen always very good at picking the right Home Counties location for an event - owned by a seldom-seen recluse, who only went out at night and was known to be interested in research.

What started as a crime book tips into horror…. It’s a disconcerting mixture of fantasy and satire, in the end I didn’t know what to make of it, though it was a most entertaining read.

Michael Arlen’s most famous book is, always, The Green Hat – one of the original inspirations for this blog. He was of Armenian origin, but settled in Great Britain (and later America) and wrote unusual stories combining melodrama, satire, romance and sexiness in varying proportions. He was a best-selling writer in his day, but almost forgotten now.

*There is a character called Mary Dove in Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye, first published in 1953. She is the housekeeper.


  1. Arlen is a fascinatingly bonkers writer. I first read one of his stories in some long ago Peter Haining horror anthology, and can only assume that Haining was following his usual habit of slipping forgotten writers into anthologies where they didn't really belong. THE GHOUL OF GOLDERS GREEN sounded promising, but it moved from a tale of a terrifying serial killer roaming '20s London into a story about a company that made Motion Picture for the Blind. The very young me was rather disappointed about the lack of horror, but rather fell in love with the archly comic style. I've always enjoyed his stuff when I've come across it, but I suspect that he's rather had his day. He sprawls over so many genres in even a shortish short story that he's hard to put into a single category, and thus harder to sell. Arlen was a fascinating man who became a close friend to, of all people, Dennis Wheatley. DW made a point of saying that Arlen had made a point of returning to Britain when war broke out, rather than sitting things out in the USA. I don't think that it's possible to imagine any authors as un-alike in style than those two!


    1. 'Fascinatingly bonkers' is a brilliant description of him! I think he is well on his way to being forgotten, though he always sounds like a nice man. I loved Green Hat, but can't say I have actually *loved* anything else by him (read some pretty terrible short stories) but I did enjoy this one. That is v interesting about his friendship with Wheatley. As you say, how unlikely! As in, the satirical sentiments in this one you could easily imagine being deadly serious in Wheatley.

  2. Oh, yes, Moira, I remember those mentions in the Christie. And you're right, of course; there is the housekeeper, Mary Dove. How interesting! The story does seem awfully strange. Still, I see what you mean about the wit and the strange sights: knickers and chamber pots on heads...hmm....... This certainly isn't your 'garden variety' crime story, if there even is such a thing.

    1. I really liked making the connection with the Christie, and now Noah Stewart has reminded us that the first Lord Peter Wimsey book begins with 'Damn!@ said Lord Peter. There must have been something in the air..

  3. Having wandered through your posts referencing his books, I think Michael Arlen is not for me. But I did then hit upon Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day ... which I do want to read.

    1. You can safely leave him to me I should think. But I am sure you would enjoy Miss Pettigrew - there is a film also.

    2. Yes, I recommend both! The movie is a bit softer, but they're both very good.

    3. Yes, Paula, I thought it was important to separate my views on book from views on film: both fine in their different ways.

  4. It's interesting that in the 1930s "the proudest families in England" still used chamber-pots. Perhaps it was to keep the lower orders in their place.

    1. Something I read recently suggested that even when indoor plumbing was fully in place, it could be a long way to the nearest bathrooms, so chamber pots continued for (aptly-named) convenience.

  5. I'll admit calling a man a sapphist made me LOL. I have a copy of The Green Hat around somewhere to read. But you've definitely tickled my interest with this one.

    1. The gentle satire on traditional male views of the time is wonderful. It is not the best book ever, but it is very short, and made me laugh when not in horror mode. What more could you ask?

    2. My nan had a guest chamberpot when I was a small child (about thirty years ago). As it was pitch black at night and the toilet was a long, long way away, through sniper-infested corridors, it was sometimes tempting to use it but the thing was so large and daunting and so dangerously elaborate at the edges that the death-defying dash downstairs always won.
      It would take a vast and solid head, with sturdy neck muscles, to properly pull off the sporting of a chamberpot.

    3. Oh that's hilarious, thanks for sharing a bit of personal history! I think the idea of chamberpot as vulgar headwear was always more of a joke than anything else...

  6. I was interested to come across your post, as I am working on a biography of Michael Arlen, the first ever of this elusive figure. Thanks for the Agatha C reference: I must follow that up. As for the title of Arlen’s novel, Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1992) has this entry under “Hell! Said the Duchess when she caught her teats in the mangle”: “Often shortened, allusively, to the opening four words. Dating from c1895, it was frequently used in WW1, although seldom in the ranks; after WW1, the shorter form has predominated, often with no ref. whatsoever to the orig: cf Michael Arlen’s novel Hell! Said the Duchess, 1934…”

    1. Oh that's fascinating, thanks for the extra info on the phrase, I didn't think it was as old as that.
      I would love to read a biography of Michael Arlen, he always sounds so interesting. I will most certainly be there in line when your book is published.


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