‘“Hell!” said the duchess’: meanings and origin

The phrase “Hell!” said the duchess originated as the jocular beginning, destined to grip the reader’s attention, of a hypothetical novel or short story.

According to most of the tales explaining the origin of the phrase, “Hell!” said the duchess was coined:
– either by an aspiring young author to whom a publisher or magazine editor told to rewrite the beginning of a story;
– or by a publisher or magazine editor when advising an aspiring young author.

These are the earliest tales that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From The Story of My Life—No. 44, by Noel Robinson, published in The Vancouver World (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) of Saturday 24th July 1915:

It is a thousand pities that more writers, great as well as small, do not follow the wise advice to “cut the cackle and come to the ‘osses’.” What a world of readers have been frightened away from the enjoyment of an interesting book or story by the lengthy introductory philosophizings of the author. Even grand old Sir Walter Scott was not blameless—but, then, he lived in the spacious days when people had time to read and were prepared to be introduced to what was to follow in a spacious and leisurely manner. Sir Walter, I fear, would have been shocked at the attitude of the young writer who, the other day, forwarded a story to a leading magazine, and, upon being informed by the editor of the magazine that it was an excellent story but very slow in opening and could not be accepted unless the opening paragraph was more dramatic, sent it back with the opening sentence reading “‘Oh, hell!’ said the duchess, who, up till this time, had taken no part in the conversation.” A dramatic opening with a vengeance!

2-: From Tom Daly’s Column, published in the Evening Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.) of Friday 28th January 1916:

PROFANELY SPEAKING OF PROFANITY.

A couple years ago there was an anecdote in the Satevepost about a young man who was advised to get his reader’s attention at the start. He brought back a short story which started, “‘Oh Hell’, said the Duchess, who had hitherto taken no part in the conversation.”
This week a story in the Post starts, “‘Oh Hell,’ said Mrs. Hicks, who had hitherto maintained a haughty silence.” I don’t think its [sic] fair for contributors to use the Post’s jokes—besides I was going to use the opening myself.
N.W.

3-: From The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.A.) of Wednesday 23rd August 1916:

A Sure Method.

From Harper’s Magazine.
There is a story afloat of an aspiring young novelist who in a confidential moment implored the advice of a publisher. His aspiration was to rivet the reader’s attention in his first sentence. What could the publisher suggest? The latter, a cynic, pondered, then ventured: “‘Hell!’ said the duchess, and lit another cigarette.”

4-: From the column The Passer-by, published in the Birmingham Gazette (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Monday 9th October 1916:

What the Duchess Said.

Discussing the best way of opening a novel, a writer in the “Nation” says: “Contemporary novelists . . . must grip their readers’ interest in the first few lines. An American writer, with a number of best-sellers to his credit, consulted his publisher on the best way of solving the problem. The publisher took some time for deliberation, and then offered the following: ‘“Hell,” said the duchess, as she flicked the ashes from her cigarette.’ Unfortunately, the author felt quite incapable of carrying on the rest of the novel in accordance with this beginning.”

5-: From the column All Over Arkansas, published in the Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas, U.S.A.) of Saturday 23rd December 1916:

Hell, Mr. Editor, and the many readers of the Advance-Reporter.—Ritz Correspondent of the Waldron Advance-Reporter.
This may be a typographical error, though the Ritz correspondent may have adopted the plan of the amateur novelist who, acting upon the advice of an editor who returned some of his manuscript with the suggestion that he make his opening sentence a startling one, so as to grip the attention of the reader, began his next story this way: “‘Hell,’ said the duchess, who hitherto had taken no part in the conversation.”

6-: From The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican (Fargo, North Dakota, U.S.A.) of Thursday 1st November 1917:

In an article in The New Republic, William Lyon Phelps discusses, in a semi-humorous vein, the revival of the art of swearing. […]
[…]
Mr. Phelps overlooked two classic incidents that would have added to his article. One was the case of the aspiring young novelist, who when told by a publisher that his novels lacked the proper “punch” at the beginning returned one day with a story, the first line of which read: “‘Hell’ said the Duchess, who had hitherto taken no part in the conversation.” The publisher, it is reported, at least read the first chapter.

7-: From the San Jose Mercury Herald (San Jose, California, U.S.A.) of Sunday 30th December 1917:

“Start where you begin,” said the teacher of the short-story class. “Have a vivid beginning.”
So teacher’s pet began his story in this way:
“‘Oh, hell,’ said the duchess, who up to this time had taken no part in the conversation.”—Judge.

The phrase soon came to be also used either without precise meaning or as a jocular exclamation. These are three examples:

1-: From the account of a day at the Epsom races, by Henry W. Nevinson, published in the Daily Herald (London, England) of Thursday 5th June 1919:

[The rain] kept on making people wet. […] All the sky was grey. It took the colour even out of the scarlet and white booths. Everything looked dull.
                                                                      “Hell!” said the Duchess.
The duchesses kept under cover. The babies were wrapt in sacking, newspaper, any old thing.

2-: From Home and Beauty: A Farce in Three Acts, first produced in August 1919, by the British novelist, short-story writer and playwright William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)—this is the relevant passage from the play, as published by William Heinemann Ltd., London, in 1923:

William. What a scene, my word. The sleeping beauty on her virtuous couch. Enter a man in a shocking old suit. Shrieks of the sleeping beauty. It is I, your husband. Tableau.
Victoria. [To turn the conversation.] You’re quite right, it is a shocking old suit. Where did you get it?
William. I didn’t get it. I pinched it. I must say I wouldn’t mind getting into some decent things.
[He walks towards a door that leads out of Victoria’s room.]
Victoria. [Hastily] Where are you going?
William. I was going into my dressing-room. Upon my soul, I almost forget what I’ve got. I had a blue serge suit that was rather dressy.
Victoria. I’ve put all your clothes away, darling.
William. Where?
Victoria. In camphor. You couldn’t put them on until they’ve been aired.
William. Hell, said the duchess.

3-: From an advertisement for Pope & Bradley, “Civil, Military & Naval Tailors”, published in The Sketch (London, England) of Wednesday 10th December 1919:

The aim of woman is the complete subjugation, physical and financial, of the male.
[…]
“Hell!” said the Duchess. “Let the young man remember that it is for him to provide and to pay, not to vie.
“So, let him economise and wear sensible, shapeless, Victorian clothes. A coat of unobtrusive drab, and a serviceable umbrella are his natural portion—all else is decadent and effeminate in a male.”
And one vast twitter of applause arises from myriads of female throats.

The British essayist, short-story writer, novelist, playwright and scriptwriter Michael Arlen (1895-1956) titled one of his books Hell! Said the Duchess: A Bed-time Story (London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1934). This is the review of this book, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Monday 2nd July 1934:

This long short story […] is described as a bed-time story. People who like to retire on a nightmare will no doubt enjoy it. The Duchess is a particularly beautiful and virtuous person. By a concatenation of circumstances, she is suspected of having committed several atrocious murders. Owing to the delay in bringing her to justice, the mob, thinking that the Duchess is being sheltered for reasons of class, begin a revolution. Meanwhile, the police discover that a certain mysterious criminal has assumed the shape, appearance and voice of the noble lady for the fun and purpose of committing these ripper atrocities. This fiend is eventually run to earth, but his villainy is of the supernatural order. Mr. Arlen has written a hair-raising thriller in his peculiarly suave and witty manner.

Interestingly, the Duchess does not utter Hell! in the book—as noted by ‘Bookman’ in the column Bookland, published in The Berwickshire News (Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, England) of Tuesday 4th September 1934:

“Hell! Said The Duchess” is by Michael Arlen, and published by Messrs Heinemann, London, at 6s. It is not clear why the book is so named, for the Duchess makes no such remark; nor is it clear why the book is sub-titled “A bed-time story.”