Journalist, translator, biographer and "literary sleuth", David Arkell was born on 23 August 1913 in Weybridge, Surrey. His parents were both involved in the arts: his father, Reginald, was an author and his mother Elizabeth (née Evans) an actress. Some of his earliest childhood memories involved visits to theatres where his mother was playing, and he made his own acting début at the age of seven, playing Peter Cratchit in a Charles Dickens Birthday Matinée at the Lyric Theatre in February 1921, alongside his mother and Ellen Terry. He grew up in London, attending Colet Court and St Paul's School, which he left in 1930.
He began his journalistic career as a reporter on local newspapers in Newcastle upon Tyne during 1932-4, contributing dramatic reviews and articles on literary and dramatic themes. He moved on to become a columnist for various London papers and magazines, including the London Opinion and Men Only, for which he wrote light-hearted articles, many on the subject of France and the French. Arkell was fluent in French; his mother Elizabeth, whose father came from Jersey, was educated in Belgian convent schools and brought up bilingual; she was keen for her son also to be proficient in French. He put this to good use, when in the late 1930s he moved to Paris and became French correspondent for the Continental Daily Mail. His first full length book, Paris, consisting of notes, observations and anecdotes on Paris and Parisian life, was published in 1938.
He was in Paris at the outbreak of the Second World War, and in 1940 was taken as a civilian prisoner to the British Internment Camp at Saint-Denis, Seine, where he remained until his release in 1944. In the camp, he became involved in the staging of various plays and revues for which he wrote a number of song lyrics. He was keen to remain involved in musicals and in the cinema after the war, and some of his lyrics were used in films.
Arkell married Marguerite Anglade (known as Maguy), a fashion buyer for a department store, in 1956, but the marriage was tragically short; Maguy died on 29 October 1962 aged only 32. Arkell continued to write: his novel, Portrait of Mimosa, had been published in 1958, and during the 1960s he pursued his interest in French literature and the lives of French writers, undertaking research on novelists and poets of the Avant-Siecle period (1880-1914). He became particularly interested in the life and work of French poet, Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), who is credited as one of the creators of modernism.
Laforgue was born in Montevideo (Uruguay) but subsequently moved to Tarbes in France, and ultimately to Paris in 1876. He took a post as French reader at the court of Empress Augusta of Germany in 1880 and during his tenure, which allowed him much spare time, he worked at developing a distinctive poetic style of his own. During 1883 he had a stormy affair with a mysterious woman known only as 'R', and in 1886 he married Leah Lee (1861-1888), an Englishwoman from Teignmouth, Devon, who was living alone in Berlin, studying painting and giving English lessons. Their marriage was brief: Laforgue died of tuberculosis in 1887 and Leah died the following year of the same disease. Laforgue's poetic output includes Les complaintes (1885), L'Imitation de Notre Dame de la lune (1886), and his masterpiece, Derniers vers (1890). He also produced some short prose pieces, notably Moralités légendaires (1887).
Arkell became an expert on all matters Laforgue, and devoted himself to unravelling various mysteries surrounding the poet's life, such as the identity of "R" and the background of the enigmatic Leah Lee. Arkell's tireless detective work led to the discovery of her birth and death dates, her place of birth, her family background, and, ultimately, her grave in Teignmouth. Laforgue scholars owe a great debt to Leah, who preserved all of her husband's literary manuscripts. In her last extant letter she wrote to arrange a meeting in 1887 with Laforgue's friend, Teodor de Wyzewa, at which she handed over these papers. Arkell tracked Leah's letter down, and it is included in his archive.
Arkell made a major contribution to Laforgue scholarship, and his research brought him into contact with academics and other enthusiasts in Europe, America and Canada. He worked closely over a twenty-year period with the distinguished editors of the Oeuvres complètes of Jules Laforgue, the first volume of which was finally published in 1986, seven years after the publication of his own 'informal biography', Looking for Laforgue (1979). This biography reflects Arkell's great knowledge of his subject, and effectively incorporates Laforgue's papers and drawings to bring the text alive.
Arkell's Laforgue biography was published by the Manchester-based Carcanet Press, who also published his two subsequent full-length works. Arkell kept up a long correspondence with the press's founder and director, Michael Schmidt, and also made numerous contributions to Schmidt's literary journal, PN Review. His second book with Carcanet, Alain-Fournier: a brief life, appeared in 1986, marking the centenary of the French writer's birth. Fournier is best remembered for his novel, Le grand meaulnes (1913), which reflects Fournier's own early and passionate love for Yvonne de Quiévrecourt, whom he met briefly in 1905 and only saw again when she was a wife and mother. Arkell's book confirmed his mastery of the 'informal biography' genre, and it was named book of the week by Radio 3.
His final book for Carcanet, Ententes cordiales: the French in London and other adventures (1989), brings together many of Arkell's greatest interests. With illustrations by Philip Norman, the book is a collection of short pieces on French literary visitors to England through the years, and also contains accounts of Arkell's own literary sleuthing experiences. 'Looking for Leah';, for example, outlines his obsessive hunt for the truth about Laforgue's wife. The volume also contains short pieces on friends of Arkell, such as the Russian ballet teacher, Vera Volkova, and the cartoonist and caricaturist, Ronald Searle.
Arkell continued to write, to contribute to PN Review and to pursue his literary researches during the 1990s; he died in 1997. The last 30 years of his life were largely devoted to his work on French writers, and he will be remembered for his contributions to Laforgue scholarship and his indefatigable search for manuscripts and other evidence to render the poet's life less of an enigma. As he comments himself in one of the letters in this archive, "I am in no way an academic or even a critic; more of a journalist and literary detective." His own archive stands as a testament to his intelligent use of manuscripts and primary materials in his research.