Friday, April 29, 2011

Fragrance Choices in Relation to Character & Ambience Delineation in Novels

"He had been before in drawing rooms hung with red damask, with pictures 'of the Italian school'; what struck him was the way in which Medora Manson's shabby hired house, with its blightened background of pampas grass and Rogers statuettes, had, by a turn of the hand, and the skillful use of a few properties, been transformed into something intimate, 'foreign', subtly suggestive of old romantic scenes and sentiments. He tried to analyse the trick, to find a clue to it in the way the chairs and tables were grouped, in the fact that only two Jacqueminot roses (of which nobody ever bought less than a dozen) had been placed in the slender vase at his elbow, and in the vague pervading perfume that was not what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses."
~Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

I have been re-reading Wharton's masterpiece and noticing page after page the meticulous care with which the author has created a vivid universe of that crumbling world of social conventions. I follow the eyes and thoughts of late 19th century young gentleman Newland Archer, about to marry the perfect girl of his New York circle, May Welland, but who nevertheless ~out of a rebellion of his inquisitive spirit~ ends up in a frustrated, unfulfilled love story with her cousin, the Countess Olenska; a woman who inwardly snubs conventions, but seems eternally trapped by them in a pre-arranged world of genteel suffocation. No detail has been spared by the author in delineating the mores, the customs, the rites and rituals of a disappearing world and, within it all, one of the most characteristic seems to be the one hinting at smells; such as the above passage, recounting the house in which the Countess Olenska stays, a house she has decorated herself and which reflects her rebellious, cosmopolitan and free nature.

Other fragrant details surface frequently too: May Welland receives posies of lilies of the valley daily ~ Diana-like, pure, beautiful, virginal and above board~ all through her engagement to Newland. As he shops for her bouquet he suddenly notices...
..."a cluster of yellow roses. He had never seen any as sun-golden before and his first impulse was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her -there was something too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty. In a sudden revulsion of mood, and almost without knowing what he did, he signed to the florist to lay the roses in another long box, and slipped his card into a second envelope, on which he wrote the name of the Countess Olenska; then, just as he was turning away, he drew the card out again, and left the empty envelope on the box".
Such small details can create a whole scene! The lily of the valley stands as the symbol of the virgin bride who is spotless and seems frail, yet surfaces triumphant in the conventional approach to marriage she seeks in the end, much like the aroma of the tiny blossom is piercingly sweet and surpasses most others. The sun-yellow rose is more mature, more feminine in a retro, "full" way, symbolising the giving and open nature of Ellen Olenska, its delicate scent a crumbling beauty that is trampled by those whose trail travels farthest.

Perfume mentions in novels, whether by general description or by specific brand names is not new, but it always strikes me as poignant and significant in setting the mood and tone of the literary work at hand. Indeed, there are books in which it sets the very plot, like obvious paradigm Das Parfum by Patrick Süskind, À Rebours (Against the Grain) by J.K. Huysmans or Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. Then, they are those which use perfume references creatively, like The Petty Demon (Melkiy Bes) by Fyodor Sologub, chronicling Peredonov's ambition to rise from instructor to rural gymnasium to school inspector as well as the erotic dalliance between Sasha Pulnivok and Lyudmilla Rutilova.
Take White Oleander by Janet Finch as well, where every character signals a hidden side of them by their choice of fragrance: The biological mom looks stealthy if deliquent, but smells of shy, tender violets. The foster mom with the suicidal tendencies chooses L'Air du Temps, fusing her frail personality with the graceful and assured arc of the Nina Ricci's classic. The upscale hooker down the road wears steely and classy chypre Ma Griffe by Carven. Even the fragrant gift of the promiscuous neighbour to the girl heroine, Penhaligon's Love Potion No.9, is a plea and realisation for what the protagonist needs most: approval.

In Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love the protagonist's wearing of Guerlain's classic Après l'Ondée elicits favourable reception. In Joanne Harris's Chocolat the depiction of all the village women wearing Chanel No.5, till the arrival of the trail blaizer heroine, is akin to a red flag of conventions-adoring set to be shred to pieces. In Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle the scent that permeates the romantic atmosphere is Penhaligon's Bluebell; as British as you can get.
Sometimes scent in novels can even become an idée fixe:
"...and I could see Maxim standing at the foot of the stairs, laughing, shaking hands, turning to someone who stood by his side, tall and slim, with dark hair, said the bishop's wife, dark hair against a white face, someone whose quick eyes saw to the comfort of her guests, who gave an order over her shoulder to a servant, someone who was never awkward, never without grace, who when she danced left a stab of perfume in the air like a white azalea."
Thus writes Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca and continues:
"And then I knew that the vanished scent upon the handkerchief was the same as the crushed white petals of the azaleas in the Happy Valley." Or "The wardrobe smelt stuffy, queer. The azalea scent, so fragrant and delicate in the air, had turned stale in the wardrobe, tarnishing the silver dresses and the brocade, and the breath of it wafted toward me now from the open doors, faded and old."
And who can forget literary giant Honoré de Balzac when he describes down to the filthy detail and to the last minutiae the places where his heroes live and work in Père Goriot?

Fragrance references and scented descriptions add a whole different sublayer to a novel's charm and sometimes worth, by injecting it with a subtle nuance like nothing else. Simply put, the novel would be incomplete without referring that sense which makes up for so many of our memories, sentiments, preconceptions and aversions.

What about you? Do you enjoy fragrance references in novels or do they distract you? And which are your favourites? Share them in the comments.


  1. This is something I've been thinking about for a while now.
    Before my fall into the perfume hole, I don't remember ever realizing reading about perfume or smells (like I did realize reading about landscapes for instance).
    I don't know whether it's the fact that I could imagine them as I was reading or just didn't pay enough attention (both are equally possible). :)
    But now, I cannot but see all the references and I enjoy them immensely. They in no way detract from my experience of reading, quite the contrary.
    But to name an example, I can't. That's one of the problems I face in life all the time - I get lost in the moment and then I forget where the moment was, I just know it happened and I enjoyed it.

  2. annemariec00:05

    Lovely post. That reference to Apres L'Ondee in The Pursuit of Love was the first time I had heard that perfume. Linda wears it, even in the misery and confusion (and horrid smells, no doubt!) of a camp for Spanish refugees. I've never thought that we are being invited to accuse her of brittle insensitivity. Instead she seems to be hanging on quite firmly to the things that maintain her confidence and sense of herself.

  3. Ines,

    that's brilliant what you say there: being ensnared in the moment is as good as any excuse not to notice something consciously. I bet your experiences are vivid and engrossing if you find you are that taken with them (and yes, I can see what you mean, even though myself I am more of an observant type sometimes).
    Do the novels you read last contain any scent hints? You read a lot I know.

  4. Annemarie,

    thank you and thanks for commenting!
    I wouldn't take Linda for an insensitive type, but rather the type that goes for honest appreciation of situations, even if she doesn't act up on them (i.e. keeping up the pretence in what concerns her marriage for instance)
    Like you say, she hangs on to her sense of self. Perhaps her fragrance choice showcases this: her romanticism and desire for happiness in the face of adversity, like the ones she comes up against.
    Wonderful literary reference, isn't it?

  5. When I was in my late teens/early 20, I read "The Tin Drum" There is much talk about scents in that book, most notably when Oskar is smitten with Maria and she smelled like vanilla. For about a year, I would dab myself with vanilla extract!

  6. Anonymous02:02

    Great topic! I've been catching up on novels by Liza Dalby (her best known book, Geisha, describes her apprenticeship as a geisha in Japan). There are numerous scent references in the novels: for example, a textile designer in Hidden Buddhas wears traditional powdered incense (zukoh) in her hair, reflecting her traditional and spiritual nature; her rebellious daughter opens a fashion boutique and composes perfumes such as Cocoa Lavande and Kyoto Morning (the notes are described in the book).

    Tale of Murasaki imagines the life of the iconic Heian author; scent references include recipes for incense that Lady Murasaki prepares for an incense contest at the imperial court.

    An article linked to Ms. Dalby's website relates that she left a bottle of Chanel No. 5 as tribute at Lady Murasaki's grave. She sounds like a fellow perfumista, and I'm trying to find time and courage to write and ask what she wears! ~~nozknoz

  7. Anonymous19:06

    I love what Ines said-about being lost in the moment but knowing she enjoyed it. It's a beautiful thought.

    I remember reading Gone With The Wind when I was 11, and reading that Scarlett wore rouge and used Florida water in her hair, and for a mouth wash( to disguise the alcohol she drank). She knows when she attends a ball that her cheeks are prettier, and her hair more fragrant, than her war deprived rivals.

    Mary Wesley's novels are full of scent references-Calypso stays true to Mitsuka, and when she is offering comfort to her 11 year old neice during WW2 Calypso takes her shopping for scent. This lost child was looking for her identity, and wanted the glamour of her older cousins. Calypso gives it to her, in the form of scent, which is very touching!

    Hope your travels are going well,


    Carole MacLeod

  8. I'm finally back so I can answer in peace.
    Yes, the novels I read contain smell references. Actually, from my experience, most novels I read have at least some reference to smells.
    But after this post, I was reading a book where the main character has an allergic reaction to some heavy stuff worn by the evil female character (I believe it would be some kind of a heavy chypre from the smell description).
    And then, I went on to the next installment in the series, and they discuss a perfume one lady is wearing which is a combination of civet and jasmine - that one sounds really scary to me. :)

    P.S. I believe really good writers try and capture all the senses when writing a book. I keep getting the idea that smell is highly underrated when talking to people around me so authors who give it place in their books instantly seem smarter to me. :) I do have some strange criteria when judging books... ;)

  9. C,

    wow, talk about an influence!! It does sound like something that would catch a young girl's fancy though. And it's romantic. :-)

    Thanks for chiming in!

  10. Noz,

    great references and close to my heart since the geisha celebration of pleasing the senses is such a nuanced and complex issue. Thank you!!
    I need to catch on Lisa Darby; I remember being interested in her years ago when I was reading Memoirs of a Geisha and she was giving interviews in documentaries about the book. Cocoa Lavande sounds rather westernized, though, doesn't it!

  11. Carole,

    thank you, it has been much needed rest and at the same time apprenticeship on the matter which interests me. ;-)

    Good thinking on Gone with the Wind, thank you! Iconic gargling cologne scene to hide her drinking in the film. I recall her mother saying that she shouldn't take fragrances as gifts from men, which is such "classic" advice.

    Mitsuka is such a loaded name, referencing perhaps the Guerlain classic. Was there such an intention mood-wise in the book?

  12. Ines,

    how very interesting!

    Smart thinking that authors who embrace all the senses are somehow "smarter"; I think you're on to something, although of course that does not exclude the more purposefully cerebral writers from excellence. But I like sensuality in novels.

    I think lots of people have a negative association with heavy chypres, maybe because they recall them as children from the 80s when really heavy, really intense compositions were worn in abundance from women at their prime then (everyone was spritzing with abandon these days).

    Civet and jasmine sounds really good to me, LOL!! Are you absolutely sure you don't like that combo? Have you tried classic Bal a Versailles? Lots of both elements.

  13. Anonymous14:48

    I should have typed 'Mitsuko', of course-so sorry about that! And other characters spoke of Calypso's beauty and mystery, and dry wit. The character appears throughout many of the nvels-growing older and becoming wiser, and always wearing Mitsuko :)



  14. Dear H,

    I came home this evening and went in search of Bal a Versailles to smell for myself. I have a clear memory of having a little miniature bottle of it, only to go through everything and not find it.
    So, then I checked my recent vintage haul and found a half-empty miniature edt and I'm smelling it now. I love it but I would never have guessed at civet and jasmine (then again the vintage edt might be of a slightly different composition) but I believe it's the fact that I can't really distinguish any note not just those two. But it does smell "dirty" (in a very good way). :)

  15. I love fragrance references now. I used to not notice them, but now I do. Recently I noticed that in Michail Bulgakov's classic Master and Margarita there's a fragrance reference -- when Hella opens a magic shop on stage of the Variete Theater, she lures women in by the names "mitsouko" and "narciss noir" :))

    Margarita also gives Natasha a bottle of perfume, but unfortunately, it is not said which one.

    The Penhaligon's perfume bottle was one of my favorite scenes in White Oleander, but LP #9 was launched after this book was written, I believe, and I tried to place the bottle from the description, and I am not sure I could do it. I think she might have given her Elizabethan Rose or even Victorian Posy, but the description of the bottle never matches the look of the actual bottles fully. It's such a pity!

  16. Miss Heliotrope08:33

    Doing some back reading & enjoyed this.

    I adore I Capture the Castle, having read it first as a-bit-too-young girl & later rediscovered it & all my memories of it came rushing back - & I understood a number more things. I actually ordered a sample of Bluebell based on it, and am currently considering dripping a little on the appropriate pages of my paperback & hardcover (second edition) versions...

  17. Carole,

    Mitsouko is a Guerlain misspelling of the Japanese word, thee's no Mitsouko in Japanese (but there's the heroine..)
    How lovely that the character keeps steady on the perfume front, gives a constant to her.

  18. I,

    it's such a classic and in such a pyramidal mold that things pop out one by one at intervals. The whole smells smooth and seamless though.

  19. Warum,

    yeah, there are those references in the Russian novel. Presenting them with Chanel, Guerlain etc. too (I found it interesting that the house names were given as if to render cachet)
    It's a pity that the novel with all its Soviet references didn't ring a bell for me and I could only read it as a revolt against a suffocating bureaucracy (to which I can relate to)

    Very interesting about the Penhaligon's in White Oleander. I wonder which one it is! The description would lead one one way and then it might be something else.

    Thanks for commenting!

  20. C,

    dipping the pages in corresponding perfume! There's an idea! It would make for very involving reading and a memorable experience when re-picking up the book to do some reading anew. I know of a lot of people who have extremely fond memories of I Capture the Castle.

    Of course it would only work with things that are relative to any given book and not arbitrarily assigned, otherwise I presume that leafing through again would produce feelings of wonder and puzzlement. (Imagine that!)


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