The best way I can describe this post is to say that it is a perfume review and a small essay on writing rolled into one, hopefully harmonious piece.
Perfume has strange and wonderful powers, this week I un-stoppered a vial of perfume whose deep, sharp notes inspired me to write not only a review but a little literary musing. It just so happened that when I sniffed this particular perfume for the first time I was writing a historical short story and treading carefully to avoid that great pitfall in writing the past: failing to imagine how different the past really was. I do not mean only the physical difference between horse drawn carriages and motorized cars, washing your clothes in a creak or having a washing machine to hand. What I was thinking of was the mental landscape of living within the past. The opening lines of Hartley’s "The Go Between" may have become a cliche but a note of truth rings there: the past is a strange place to imagine let alone to visit, It’s customs are not our own, it’s conventions are not our own and for every familiarity there lie in wait a thousand mysteries.
From our vantage point in the twenty first century, however, the behaviors of the past can seem baffling. Not only the broad sweeps of politics and policy but the tiny details. We now know that most people in Medieval times woke during the night. Very probably they woke due to the extreme cold but gradually they came to see safety in these nocturnal interruptions; the midnight hour was the witching hour and a wakeful household was also a vigilant household when witches danced.
These days, the fortunate majority of us sleep through the night, insulated from such biting cold by walls stronger than wattle and daub and witches have become just another Halloween costume slipped on to provide a vicarious thrill. However, if you want to write about the medieval world you need to take these facts into account just as you will need to give the fantastical figures on the margins of maps more than a cursory glance. Omnipods, sea serpents and wolf heads are more than mere decoration they were genuine fears lying just beyond the horizon. The skies were full of ships too, their inhabitants unable to breath earth’s rich air whilst their anchors occasionally caught against the impediments of barns and church towers.
Marina Warner points out in her book, ‘From the Beast to the Blond’ that 17th century fairy tales of wolves and bears were far more terrifying to their original audiences, no matter how regal, because they truly inhabited a world where one wrong turn in the woods could lead you into the jaws of a waiting wolf. Now, the wolves are long gone and so has the visceral fear of them. If we wish to recreate the fear, we often end up re-imagining what it means to encounter a “wolf”.
This is not to say that there was not amusement to be found in fairy tales from their first readings onward, but historical methods for mitigating the fear factor might prove unpalatable to a modern writer. At one court performance for Louis XIV scripted my Moliere, Warner tells how dancing bears from the court menagerie were used, a practice we shiver at now for it’s savage mistreatment of animals but which never gave those audiences a second thought.
The art of historical imagination can be just as difficult when one turns to perfumes.
When we think of the odours of the past we immediately conjour the odours we find most displeasing now, the fecal scents of open drains and unwashed bodies and we wonder how they could bear not only to be around these but how they could possibly hope to cover them with perfumes. How, we wonder, could they even smell the perfumes they wore? Alas we imagine some light floral akin to the delicate fragrances that fill up our own well lit department stores forgetting how powerful and rich the perfumes of choice a few hundred years ago would have been.
There was as much of the animal on the dressing tables of histories great beauties as there was on their dining tables. Castoreum, civet and musk. The animal kingdoms scent glands of display and seduction were being put to use by Casanova’s and Du Barrys with similar results. Ambergris, the pungent sea washed product of Whales stomach discomforts was sprinkled liberally on bodies and into food (Charles II liked to use a little Ambergris as a breakfast garnish) There are certainly methods for olfactory archaeology since so many of the great perfume houses (Floris, Penhaligons and Guerlain for instance) started in the nineteenth century. You could start with a few classics like Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet (used to such perfect effect in Essie Fox’s The Somnambulist) or Guerlain’s Jicky. However, reformulation has changed these perfumes a great deal over the intervening centuries. Oscar Wilde’s beloved Malmaison by Floris returned briefly a few years ago but is far removed from the volatile natural oriental he would have dabbed on in the mornings.
In any case, it was a powerful sensory experience of luxury that I was struggling to convey when I un-stoppered Zoologist perfumes beautiful, Beaver.
For a second after the first spritz, the scent of this perfume is arresting. It’s warm and bitter, animal and unashamed. However, after a few seconds of olfactory adjustment, a sniff of my wrist bought a smile to my lips.
This was the perfumed key I had been seeking into the boudoir of my protagonist. This is the bitter post hunt perfume, the scent wafting up from a courtiers jabot as you lean in to whisper a few words of gossip. It’s pungent but whilst that could prove overwhelming I found that I liked the smell.
It may not be for the faint hearted but who wants to be fainted hearted when it comes to perfume?
It’s sharp, clear notes of fresh air and citrus serve beautifully to strengthen and refine the powerful hits of musk and castoreum (what else in a perfume called Beaver?) whilst the smoke and undergrowth create a rich imagined backdrop to the perfume story playing out around them. The cold winter air has just been shut out of the party as the fire rises in the hearth and the seduction begins.
Everything I wanted to convey fell into place when I breathed in this perfume, it’s very style of perfume story telling as utterly modern as it’s notes were refreshingly historical. I recommend it, to those trying to recapture the past or find something a little different.