Essential Oils

Catherine Maxwell, Scents and Sensibility: Perfume in Victorian Literary Culture

Oxford University Press, 347pp, £30.00, ISBN 9780198701750

reviewed by Stuart Walton

Sillage is a French borrowing adopted by the perfume industry. Originally meaning a ship's wake, it refers to the vapour-trail of scent left in the air when its wearer passes by. Some perfumes have a delectably – or perhaps notoriously – long sillage that appears to cling to and infuse everything in the vicinity, evoking the olfactory equivalent of an electromagnetic image of the departed presence. The long-posited alliance between scent and memory, ratified by investigations in the brain sciences, accounts for the instant recall evoked by a waft of eau de toilette, as also the smells of particular rooms and the events that took place in them, of old books, new wool, cleaning fluids and cooking ingredients, and the individual odor sexualis of every bygone lover.

Literature only properly discovered the power of scent with the Romantic era. If there are smells in Smollett, Fielding and other Georgian novelists, they are the crude emanations of the urban purlieu, incidental impressions that form part of the social detail. To appreciate odours for themselves, as compound essences of natural phenomena, is first of all the business of the de-socialised address to Nature, the attempt to re-inscribe human consciousness into the natural world from which its diremption was the traumatic constitution of it.

By the end of the 19th century, as Catherine Maxwell's history of perfume in fin de siècle literature makes clear, the scents of the natural world had mingled indissociably with those products of the nascent modern perfume industry, themselves inspired by flowers, leaves and woods, herbs and spices, not to mention a nosegay of unmentionable mammalian secretions, that fascinated aesthetes and decadents of the 1890s. Not all the poets, novelists and essayists Maxwell addresses personally wore scent themselves, though many did, but it became in their work a resourceful synecdoche for sensual indulgence, the overwrought sensibility, social vanguardism and moral decadence.

The perfumed male was, and to some extent remains, an ambivalent figure. There is something even more worrying now about a man who wants to smell of violet leaves, as Dior's sensational original formula for its Fahrenheit cologne allowed him to do, than there was in the idea of a man dabbing a little violet-scented toilet water on his handkerchief in 1895. But whether it was worrying for its suggestion of unorthodox sexuality, or for the apparent nefariousness of his purposes towards women, was hard to say. In both sexes, the wearing of perfume was an aromatic equivalent of make-up. What qualities – implicitly moral qualities, that is – might it be masking or distracting from?

Perfume could be pressed into poetic use as an image of the fading fickleness of love, bewitching for an evening or a moment, but inevitably doomed to fade vaporously in the consuming air. Then again, it was precisely the evocativeness of scent that conferred longevity on the memories of times and bodies that the past might otherwise have granted a decent interment. Attempts to make the effects and actions of scent more concrete included the transitory Parisian vogue of the 1890s for injecting perfume subcutaneously. Its enormous alcohol content would have been the principal factor, but you could perhaps persuade yourself that you were succumbing to a more elevated oblivion if it was frangipani rather than Scotch you were administering.

Maxwell establishes the ideological alignments that the decadent era convoked between intoxicating perfumes and the aesthetic sensibility. The atmosphere of the hothouse was a favoured metaphor to denote the overheated temperament of the late Victorian belle-lettrist. She isn't exaggerating. When moved to verbal pugilistics, the mutual trolling of the aesthetes is mightily impressive. The famously tetchy Thomas Carlyle called Algernon Swinburne 'a man standing up to his neck in a cesspool, and adding to its contents', a charge that earned him a post-mortem characterisation from the poet as 'the filthy and virulent Arch-Quack of Chelsea . . . a noisy and noisome dung-fly, while his breath still infected the upper air.’ Swinburne, a perpetual target of rugged moralists, but one who favoured bracing marine fragrances and was a confirmed devotee of samphire soap, was condemned by Ralph Waldo Emerson as 'a perfect leper and mere sodomite', and promptly responded by depicting the American philosopher as 'a gap-toothed and hoary-headed ape', one of a 'tribe of autocoprophagous baboons who make the filth they feed on.’

If everybody would just shut it, one would be able to enjoy the heady exhalations of the musk-rose, the torpidly putrefying odour of tuberose, the dancing enchantments of sweet violets and sweet briar, sweet peas and meadowsweet, stephanotis and myrtle, lilies and lily-of-the-valley. The resins that were used in the first industrially produced perfumes, the essential oils that were steam-distilled from them and the synthetic agents that were developed to imitate them, conferred exotic accents on their wearers, suggestions of the hubbub of Arabian markets and the hammam's billowing steam, boosted by recherché gleanings from the animal kingdom. Ambergris was the intestinal excretion of sperm-whales, which needed time after gathering to lose its emetic taint and turn seductive. Myrrh was reported to be gathered from the beards of goats that nibbled on its bark.

The problem with perfume is that it so often trembles on the lip of excess, as indeed did the more pungent literary works Maxwell discusses. There are also far more nasty smells than heavenly ones, as is attested by the enduring spite with which the sense of smell is resorted to in all ages as a marker of social alterity. The year after his disgorgement from Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde goes to the theatre with Lord Alfred, only to find they are seated next to a malodorous German, from whom Bosie shrinks in decorous repulsion. '[I]t is smell that differentiates races,' Wilde remarks in a letter. If later ages have overlooked his corrosive superciliousness in favour of the perfumed wit, they have been even kinder to the rancid social fascism of Virginia Woolf, for whom the smells of the lower orders – not body odour even, but cheap perfume – are infallible indicators of their cousinage with the beasts, while those of her social equals, people she has often scarcely seen to the door after tea before she is excoriating them in her diary, fare no better. Katherine Mansfield, for one, 'stinks like a . . . civet cat’.

Present-day aromatherapy is a commercial wager on the trust of consumers that there may be respite from the commodity economy in metaphysical essences, always assuming that its customers fail to notice that it is built on turning these essences themselves into commodities. Just so did the headlong plunge into natural and artificially synthesised scent, for which the emblem is Wilde's Dorian Gray 'burying his face in the great cool lilac-blossoms, drinking in their perfume as if it had been wine', represent a final gasp of the Romantic temperament in its yearnfulness to reclaim a natural reality over which the capitalist economy had deposited another seventy years of industrial effluent since the death of Keats. If there is a missing element to Maxwell's diligently researched account of this literature, it is any attempt to explain its social significance. Like much else, the Great War would blow away the last of its sillage in the stench of cordite and chorine gas.

In a lyric of 1893, 'White Heliotrope', the poet Arthur Symons images a post-coital scenario with a casual lover who watches, newly half-awakened, as he contemplates the dishevelled room. He has sprinkled some of the woman's vanilla-rich floral perfume on his handkerchief.

'This [scene] … / Will rise, a ghost of memory, if / Ever again my handkerchief / Is scented with White Heliotrope.'

Here is a keenly etched image of the demise of olfactory sensualism. If memory is comported by unexpected emanations of scent, as for Proust, its spontaneity of access is abolished by its congealment into a mere mnemonic. Every dabbing of perfume on the pulse-points is an attempt to recreate a lost segment of life, which can be recalled in the manner of a static snapshot, but at the expense of denying memory its vital liquidity. It will rise obediently to consciousness, but the droplet of experience that it promises to distil instead precipitates into a resinous gum, albeit an exotically scented one. Symons' lover is not looking back on a moment, but looking forward, in the moment, to a moment when he will able to look back on it. Present experience is already sold into a cold future as the matter of retrospection to come, or, as the tourist is adjured by the camera manufacturer, as the chilling duty to make some memories. Memory is thereby collapsed as flat as a perfumed opera-hat, frozen into the dull ache of nostalgia for a present whose magic he hopes to guarantee once it becomes the probably lifeless past.