LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
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.
THESE were the images from the book I really wanted to show – but sadly no suitable pictures could be found.
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.
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.”
The investigation goes forward – there is some funny business about the Duchess’s maid, and there is a very sinister man around:
“I am not talking about a Frenchwoman, but about the most gracious lady in England…”
“…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.”
(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.)
“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…”
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.