Michael Arlen: A Dandysme of the Soul

by Mark Valentine

The Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, the Long Weekend, the days of the Bright Young Things: the period just after the First World War and before the Depression of the Thirties has passed into legend as a time of wild abandon and fateful devil-may-care. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the American chronicler of those years, but in Britain it was Michael Arlen who most caught the Twenties mood. In a few dashing and cynical books, which the New Statesman typified as unequalled in evoking the 'dandysme of the soul', Arlen wrote of the fast set of Mayfair and Belgravia, those who were to be termed the Lost Generation. His characters are doomed young war heroes still hungering for excitement; newly emboldened and abandoned heroines; raffish cads and outcasts from convention. Their appeal was so great that he became one of the first million-sellers and revelled in fame and luxury. He became one of the first media celebrities, whose every move was newsworthy. Yet he wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, was proud of his friendships with D. H. Lawrence, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway and other literary figures, and in his last years despaired at his inability to write something new.

However, Michael Arlen remains little more than a footnote in histories of 20th century fiction. Perhaps this is partly because of his obscure background. He was born on 16 November 1895 in Rustchuck, Bulgaria, to an Armenian merchant family fleeing the Turkish massacres of their race. They came to England in 1901 and settled in Lancashire. Christened as Dikran Kouyoumdjian, Arlen attended an English public school ('So I'm completely self-educated,' he quipped), and, briefly, St Andrews University in Scotland. Breaking away from his family, who disowned him, he went to London to put into practice his firm belief that writing was his vocation. As an alien, he was not permitted to play any part in the war effort and so lived frugally, scraping a living from newspaper and magazine contributions. When his writing began to attract attention, he invented the pseudonym Michael Arlen, checking the London telephone directory to make sure he would at least be unique in the world's capital. When he became a naturalized British subject in 1922, he adopted the pen-name as his legal name too. Armenian refugees had been the object of pity in Britain, as a Christian people cruelly persecuted by the Muslim Turks, but Arlen knew that this pity was mixed with liberal doses of condescension which a proud race found hard to bear. He knew that he would never be fully accepted in his adopted country, and his success certainly bred resentment. Another popular author, Sydney Horler, sneeringly described him as 'the only Armenian who never tried to sell me a carpet'. Arlen set himself to become more English than the most aristocratic of the English. Even when he was struggling in the early years, his tailoring was always impeccable, he perfected the languid air of the born dilettante and beguiled the opposite sex with his studied, immaculate manners. But he also played upon his foreignness, describing himself as 'every other inch a gentleman' and 'a case of pernicious Armenia'.

His first book, The London Venture (1920), was a lightly fictionalized account of his early literary struggles. On its appearance, it was thought by some to be a pseudonymous work by George Moore, whose candid memoirs written in an ornamental, Eighteen Nineties style were highly acclaimed. Full of literary references, the book is notable for its championing of D. H. Lawrence, whom Arlen had befriended when they were both beginning their writing careers. It was Lawrence who advised Arlen that he would be best advised to write fantasy, because of his Romantic notions. Later, much of Arlen is to be seen in Lady Chatterley's first lover, in Lawrence's notorious novel (1928), where he is scarcely disguised as Michaelis, a successful society playwright: 'Connie really wondered at this queer, melancholy specimen of extraordinary success . . . Sometimes he was handsome: sometimes, as he looked sideways, downwards, and the light fell on him, he had the silent, enduring beauty of a carved ivory Negro mask, with his rather full eyes, and the strong queerly-arched brows, the immobile, compressed mouth . . . Connie felt a sudden, strange leap of sympathy for him, a leap mingled with compassion, and tinged with repulsion . . . The outsider! The outsider! And they called him a bounder!'

Arlen's debut showed promise not so much in the subject matter, which was nothing new, but in the style, which was both refreshingly informal and yet carefully crafted. It received notice and marked him as an author to watch. He followed it with a collection of four short stories, The Romantic Lady (1921), each telling with a wistful air some tale of a tragic love affair: this gained him more of a popular audience and prepared the way for his first major success.

'Piracy' (1922; the title includes the inverted commas) recounts the life of Ivor Pelham Marley in a decade spanning the war years. A writer of romances, from an aristocratic background ('Missed an earldom by an heir's breath' says one character), Marley epitomizes the sense of futility of the war generation. He has a doomed love for provocative and glamorous Virginia Tarlyon, a Soho bohemian as well as a Society figure: 'Virginia has a mind like a cathedral,' proclaims her father. 'Of course every cathedral has its gargoyles,' he adds wistfully. Her appearance slim, white-faced like a carnival mask, delicate and her lifestyle were based on the poet and heiress Nancy Cunard, whom Arlen had met in 1920. They spent an idyllic year together mostly in Montmartre, becoming close confidantes and perhaps lovers, despite Nancy's now token marriage to a young officer when she was 18, but they eventually drifted apart. At one point, Aldous Huxley regarded Arlen as a rival for Nancy's allegiance, and he satirizes him in his novel Those Barren Leaves (1925), where he is travestied as 'the swarthy Syrian with the blue jowl and the silver monocle . . . he never lost an opportunity of telling people he was a poet; he was for ever discussing the inconveniences and compensating advantages of possessing an artistic temperament'. Though Huxley altered Arlen's physical appearance, the urgent insistence on his writing was pure Arlen.

'Piracy' was a great success, for it portrayed both the unconventional, spontaneous, consciously modern life of those artistic circles which gathered in the Café Royal and the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Soho, and certain ageless qualities of gallantry and chivalry which were seen to be bound to fall under the onslaught of mass movements and mass industry. The novel's theme may perhaps be summed up in the defiant toast offered by the last gentleman in England in a fantasy scene conjured by Marley in which the old order is besieged by armies of the nouveau riches: 'For King and Cocktails!' he proclaims.

The novel was followed by Arlen's most successful collection of linked short stories, These Charming People (1923), which with its splendid sub-title, 'Being a Tapestry of The Fortunes, Follies, Adventures, Gallantries and General Activities of Shelmerdene (that lovely lady), Lord Tarlyon, Mr Michael Wagstaffe, Mr Ralph Wyndham Trevor and Some Others of Their Friends of the Lighter Sort'. The fifteen stories are quicker in wit and cleverer in storyline than his earlier work and their twist endings and elegant, sardonic style suggest a strange hybrid of the American short story master O. Henry and the epigrammatic, quintessentially English Saki (H. H. Munro). For the first time, Arlen introduces fantasy and the macabre to his tales, and the bizarre adventures his characters find in the London streets suggest the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights. The most notable pieces are the ghost stories 'The Ancient Sin' and 'The Loquacious Lady of Lansdowne Passage', where Arlen's flippancy gives a necessary distance to the two tragic scenes of violence: but the book also introduces 'The Cavalier of the Streets', a gentlemanly blackmailer and burglar somewhat in the Raffles style, whose caddish conduct is usually found to mask some higher purpose. All the tales are laced with fine irony and understatement, and a kind of bantering tone with the reader which was becoming Arlen's hallmark.

One of the stories, 'When a Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square', inspired a BBC house composer, struggling to meet a deadline, to write a song with the same title, which has proved of lasting appeal, while the book's title was also turned into a popular song, which has not lasted so well ('These Charming People/Gay and debonair/Full of savoir-faire' went the chorus).

But it was The Green Hat (1924) that precipitated Arlen into a world of unimagined acclaim and prosperity. The novel was quite simply the novel of the year, seized upon as the poetically true testament to a brilliant, daring and doomed generation. The owner of the green hat is Iris Storm, whose wild pursuit of pleasure in the parties, masquerades, night clubs and restaurants of London and Paris has led to her reputation as a 'shameless, shameful' woman: but paradoxically there is some calm reserve in her which seems to imply a secret inner grace. The melodramatic narrative, written in what one critic called an 'opium dream style', sonorous with exotic and cosmic images, may only draw a wry smile today. The heroine's first husband, clean-cut 'Boy' Fenwick, commits suicide on their wedding night by throwing himself out of their bedroom window. She allows it to be assumed he did this because of something he learned about her, and her reckless career serves to support this view. But an ardent admirer reveals at last the truth to her friends and Fenwick's family: that her husband had syphilis and she has sacrificed her reputation to protect his good name. Furious at this betrayal of the 'one fine thing' in her life, Iris rushes off in her sleek yellow Hispano-Suiza car and is killed in a collision with a great ancient tree, her rakish green hat floating free beyond the flames.

The extraordinary success of the novel, which seemed somehow to symbolize the immolation of a generation, earned Arlen about half a million dollars in the USA alone. It was made into a sanitized silent film version starring Greta Garbo (A Woman of Affairs, 1928) and a West End play with Tallulah Bankhead in the lead role. It spawned numerous imitations and parodies, one of which The Green Mat by Roger Abingdon is a hilarious parody introduced by Arlen himself. Arlen used some of the proceeds from his bestseller to finance Noel Coward's controversial play The Vortex (1924). Coward was a friend from the old days of literary struggle. The Green Hat put Arlen at once in the same league as Edgar Wallace and E. Phillips Oppenheim, but unlike them he did not need to keep turning out a stream of new thrillers: the one book was sufficient to assure his future. Like them, however, Arlen made his home on the French Riviera where he could indulge his taste for the high life in full. He mingled with minor royalty and international aristocracy, no doubt satisfying to one who chaffed his English friends by telling them he was entitled to the title 'Baron', without revealing that in Armenia Bahr-rohn means no more than Mister. In 1928, indeed, his fondness for titles was gratified by his marriage to the Greek countess Atalanta Mercati. Yet Arlen remained mindful of his origins in a persecuted people: when he saw Goebbels strutting on a hotel balcony below his room, he carefully prepared a Martini and poured it languidly over the Nazi minister's head.

The Green Hat was clearly going to be difficult to follow, and Arlen bought time by publishing next a further collection of stories featuring the 'charming people' circle, May Fair (1925). This is almost as good as the first volume, with a particularly ruthless ghost story, 'The Gentleman from America', whose humour is so black that Alfred Hitchcock chose it for his TV series of macabre classics. More polished and artificial fantasy is to be found in 'The Prince of the Jews' and in the epilogue, 'Farewell, These Charming People', in which Satan attends a brilliant, world-weary dinner party: ' "Young man," said the Lord Chancellor severely, "are you seriously implying that you are the Prince of Darkness?" "We do not recognize that title," cried Lady Surplice. "It is not in Burke, Debrett, or the Almanach de Gotha " '

Seven of his supernatural stories from previous collections were gathered in Ghost Stories (1927) and Arlen's publishers frequently repackaged his work in omnibus volumes to milk his success. Babes in the Wood (1930) brought together some uncollected earlier work and newer stories, including the notably autobiographical 'Confessions of a Naturalised Englishman', which is the nearest Arlen got to revealing his own thoughts and feelings.

But it was another Green Hat the public wanted, and Arlen had three attempts to oblige them, with Young Men in Love (1927), Lily Christine (1929) and Men Dislike Women (1931). On the strength of his name, these all sold well, but none received anything like the adulation of The Green Hat. The first, ominously, includes a portrait of a fantastically popular author whose finds he has 'had enough of publicity', is 'tired of making a fool of himself' and wants to be 'a serious man, one of the world's workers'. The author is taken to task for failing to write about 'lords and champagne and lovely painted ladies': readers find him 'very disappointing', publishers accuse him of ingratitude, and critics say he is 'insincere' and 'affected'. The main theme of the novel, the intrigues of three tainted children, seems too unwieldy for Arlen's powers and one can fairly assume Arlen was predicting what the reaction to the book would be, possibly as a warning or a challenge to himself. The warring urges either to placate his public or to try to find a new voice and message were never to be resolved in the rest of Arlen's work. Lily Christine seems to have been deliberately written as a pale imitation of The Green Hat, with a similar noble and elusive heroine, and a plot which even resorts to a final car crash at the end too. Sure enough, it was duly accepted by the public and sold well: but it is quite without the breathless verve and tragic ecstasy of the earlier novel. Similarly, in Men Dislike Women, the introduction of Americans as significant characters seems to have been designed to pander to his audience across the Atlantic, where he had been acclaimed by Sinclair Lewis, himself highly successful with Main Street (1920) and Babbit (1922), as 'one of the phenomena of our time'.

It is to Arlen's credit that he did not simply resign himself to the comfortable production of formula fiction, perennially fashioning a new form of Iris Storm to gratify the Green Hat fanatics: but his downfall was that he could not quite throw off his creation. Arlen tried to break new ground with a serious futuristic novel, Man's Mortality (1933). This is set in the 1980s, when an international aircraft syndicate has monopolized all forms of global communications and effectively controls the world. There has been peace and a measure of progress for fifty years, but now a generation of younger officers in the service are reviving ideas of freedom and national identity. Arlen tries to explore the tension between these ideals and the need for stability, while still giving his readers the action and adventure of a thriller, but the result is unconvincing. As a prediction of the power of multinational companies to influence world affairs, often overshadowing the governments of smaller countries, Arlen's book has been proved accurate, but his description of the future is not fully realized and his characters do not come to life. Though he was proud of this attempt to tackle profounder themes, Arlen's novel was indifferently received, most critics comparing it unfavourably to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which had appeared the year before.

The strikingly-entitled Hell! Said the Duchess (1934) was closer to Arlen's usual territory and did indeed achieve more success. Arlen catches some of the contemporary turmoil of the Thirties, with the unemployment marches, Fascist and Communist demonstrations, social upheaval and a ponderous, stagnant National Government. But this forms the background to a bizarre thriller about a series of 'Jane the Ripper' murders perpetrated by a young, unknown feminine killer on working class men. The beautiful Duchess of Dove is suspected, but Scotland Yard cannot bring themselves to believe that an aristocrat could be responsible, especially in view of the sexual nature of the crimes. As agitation to arrest the irreproachable Duchess increases, a private detective begins to find discrepancies in the case against her. In a strong and rather daring climax to the novel, we learn that the Duchess's semblance is seized and misused at intervals by an evil spirit of sin incarnate whose real form is closer to that of the serpent or dark slime. There are echoes of Jekyll and Hyde or Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan.

Arlen returned even more closely to his original formula with his next book, a collection of short stories (or 'legends' as he called them) entitled The Crooked Coronet (1937), dedicated to a princess of the deposed royal house of Serbia, whom Arlen knew from his South of France circle. The eleven stories include two new adventures of the Cavalier of the Streets and a return for some of the 'charming people' of his earlier volumes. But there are signs of repetition in the plots and the witticisms of these stories and the preposterousness of incident is more forced, as if even Arlen is tiring of his own inventiveness. The one unusual tale is the legend of 'The Black Archangel', in which a winged West African messiah leads an uprising against colonial rule. Despite the typically outré theme, the lead character is portrayed with some sympathy.

The Flying Dutchman (1939) was Arlen's last book, and it was another attempt to find a new direction. A political thriller, it is interesting today as a record of the troubled atmosphere of the years immediately before the Second World War. Ranging widely across the world, it links together revolutions, assassinations, riots and civil wars in a biting portrayal of humanity going out of control and moving remorselessly towards all-out war. After much intrigue and mystery, the novel unveils a nihilistic conspiracy, the Societié de C, whose members are all outcasts from other extreme organizations, and whose sole aim is to act as agents provocateurs in every volatile situation they can find. We learn at the end that this strange cabal started as the sardonic hoax of a wealthy newspaper proprietor, but rapidly ran out of control. The novel is sombre and pessimistic, and there are few flashes of Arlen's usual style. It is somewhat over-extended, and there is a rather weak love-interest theme which never catches fire, but it should probably be better-known, if only for its historic interest. Once again, however, Arlen was to be disappointed by the response to his search for more challenging writing. The book was even less well received than Man's Mortality.

After he had ceased writing, Arlen was reluctant to allow reprints of his books, but they sold so well originally that they are not difficult to find. Signed editions are not that uncommon: as a celebrity, Arlen was often asked for his autograph. His later books are the least readily found, but they are also the least read. Arlen's last years were tragic and wasted. He returned to England to serve as an air raid warden during the Second World War, but found the old suspicions of his foreign ancestry were stirred up again and in 1944 left for America. He co-wrote a screenplay for a mild romantic comedy, The Heavenly Body, starring Hedy Lamar, and found other Hollywood work. He was used to introduce a TV series of strange tales, and he recycled some old ideas to sell stories to American magazines. But his inspiration had gone, his flair for clever turns of phrase and unusual plots had faded. His son, Michael J. Arlen, has written a moving memoir of this time (Exiles, 1971) which portrays the aimlessness of his father's life, leisured but barren, a constant round of socializing with people who hardly knew him but were attracted by the old cachet of his name. He recalls too Arlen's long, lonely night-time pacings in their library, which would end as they began: with the white writing-paper on the desk still neatly stacked and unmarked. Michael Arlen died of cancer in New York on 23 June 1956.

Since then, Arlen's work has remained largely unregarded. The Green Hat has had periodic revivals as a touchstone novel for the Twenties, read perhaps as a piece of high camp fun in the same vein as the novels of Ronald Firbank, or E. F. Benson's 'Mapp and Lucia'. His macabre stories, especially 'The Gentleman from America' and 'The Smell in the Library', have been widely anthologized and he retains a minor place in the field of horror fiction because of these. But it seems to me that the fantastical and romantic characters of his best short stories those in These Charming People and May Fair may yet find a following. Lord Tarlyon, Ralph Wyndham Trevor, the Cavalier of the Streets, Shelmerdene and the others have too much insouciance and bravado to lie undiscovered for long.



The London Venture (Heinemann, 1920)

The Romantic Lady (Collins, 1921)

'Piracy' (Collins, 1922)

These Charming People (Collins, 1923)

The Green Hat (Collins, 1924)

May Fair (Collins, 1925)

Ghost Stories (Collins, 1927)

Young Men in Love (Hutchinson, 1927)

Lily Christine (Doubleday, Doran, 1929)

Babes in the Wood (Hutchinson, 1930)

Men Dislike Women (Heinemann, 1931)

Man's Mortality (Heinemann, 1933)

Hell! Said the Duchess (Heinemann, 1934)

The Crooked Coronet (Heinemann, 1937)

The Flying Dutchman (Heinemann, 1939)



The Ancient Sin and Other Stories (Collins, 1930)

The Short Stories of Michael Arlen (Collins, 1933)


Thanks to P. J. Beveridge for introducing me to the work of Michael Arlen. 

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