Fragrance and fiction: a heaven scent combination

Alice Dunn sniffs out the perfumes inspired by great literature

‘If only there could be an invention,’ I said impulsively, ‘that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.’

Such sentiment (as voiced by the anonymous narrator in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca) is highly appealing. I’d be tempted to apply it to books. When we find a particularly moving passage in a text, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the feelings it conjures could be bottled and then released whenever we like?

Such a feat has recently been performed, or at least attempted. In January this year, the coveted perfume brand Miller Harris released two new scents inspired by a passage from Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald. The perfumes, Tender and Scherzo, pick out the floral notes in Fitzgerald’s description of ‘kaleidoscopic peonies massed in pink clouds, black and brown tulips and fragile mauve stemmed roses,’ creating two bold aromas.

Both perfumes find themselves in good company. Literature has kindled many fragrances: the beautiful and complex scent called Portrait of a Lady by Frederic Malles undoubtedly echoes Henry James’ novel of the same name; Bella Freud’s spicy Ginsberg is God was inspired by the American poet and philosopher Allen Ginsberg; the apple-citrus notes in L’Eau des Hesperides by Diptyque find their roots in the three Hesperides: Aegle, Erytheia and Hesperia from Greek myth. The emblem of Medusa graces bottles of Versace perfume. If we were to peruse top perfumer Serge Luten’s website in search of a fragrance, we would find references to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Marcel Proust in the descriptions of various scents.

Curiously, peering out between veteran bottles of Chanel and Prada, there are now perfumes which have been composed to smell like books. One can part with £110 for the pleasure of smelling just like a Bibliothèque thanks to the brand Byredo. Not to leave a page unturned (or unscented), Avestan will soon offer a perfume you can spray on your paper and luggage. Perfume aficionados are aquiver with anticipation.

It is easy to see how fiction has spawned so many perfumes. At times, literature is perfectly pungent. The pages of Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April are spritely with natural scent: newly arrived in Italy, Mrs Arbuthnot is struck by the smell of wisteria ‘tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering.’ An obsession with perfume occupies the mind of Des Esseintes, the main character in Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans. In a climactic piece of olfactory writing, Des Esseintes decides he needs to ‘study the grammar, master the syntax of aromas.’ Overwhelmed by the scent of frangipani, he proceeds to riff on the virtues of fragrance. He ponders the big notes and names in perfume: ‘The Atkinsons and the Lubins, the Chardins and the Violets, the Legrands and the Piesses.’ The former, Atkinsons, refers to the historic perfumery in London which had a shop in Paris. The same perfumery gets a mention in Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

Atkinson’s is not the only perfume name to have been sprinkled into fiction. Nancy Mitford dabbles with Guerlain in The Pursuit of Love (‘What delicious scent you have, Après l’Ondée? I thought so.’) Truman Capote also dwells briefly on a Guerlain scent in his unfinished novel Answered Prayers: ‘The room smelled of her perfume (at some point I asked her what it was, and Colette said: “Jicky. The Empress Eugénie always wore it. I like it because it’s an old-fashioned scent with an elegant history, and because it’s witty without being coarse – like the better conversationalists.”’) Allusions to perfume are sometimes parenthesised, as in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying when fragrances by Jean Patou and Dior are smelt together: ‘I backed into my mother’s sable coat (smelling of old Joy and Diorissimo)’. Is it only be a matter of time before someone formulates the smell of Animal Farm?


Close