Pat here: As I may have said before, one of the fun parts of writing historical novels is the dive down research bunny holes. I’ve just spent a lovely few hours scrounging around in the insane details of British law, how magistrates were appointed and criminals brought to court, when there was essentially no police force in rural environs. And along with that, I followed a side trail into manorial law, an entire blog by itself. Suffice it to say, my hero, as heir to a manorial estate, is a law unto himself. He doesn’t like it much, though. (above photo is manor and accompanying village–not quite the one I imagine as I write but pretty anyway. See the manor way in the background?)
In historical romances, we often read at length about a lady’s toilette—soaps, cremes, face paints, powders and fragrance. Well, in starting my new trilogy, which is called ‘The Lords of Midnight,’ I began thinking about the gentlemen of the Regency. Now, we all know they were quite the dandies, so I decided to do a little research . . .
One doesn’t have to stroll very far in London to learn a lot about how the Tulips of the ton looked so perfectly polished. Simply walk down St. James’s Street and turn left onto Jermyn Street. There on the south side of the pavement you will come to Number 89, which houses Floris, the oldest family-run fragrance shop in the world.
It was in 1730 that Juan Famenias Floris came to London from the isle of Menorca, seeking to make his fortune. He and his wife Elizabeth opened a small shop on the fashionable street offering barbering and shaving to the fancy gentlemen who frequented the area. A skilled comb-maker, Floris had also learned to blend aromatic oils while living in Montpelier, France. He soon decided to add custom-blended fragrances to his shop. And the rest, as they say, is history . . .
Beau Brummell spent many hours discussing his preferences with Floris (a number of the original recipes for scents are in the Floris archives) And he was just one of the many notable people who were patrons of the shop. Lady Jersey was also a devoted client, as the ledgers show. In 1818, Mary Shelley, Mary Shelley, wife of the famed Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of Frankenstein wrote to a friend while she was living abroad and asked that her send her “two hairbrushes and a small toothbrush from Floris.”
In 1820, Floris was awarded a Royal Warrant as “Smooth Pointed Comb Maker to HM The King George IV.” (The shop still displays this original, and has 16 others to go with it—the shop is currently “Perfumers to HM The Queen Elizabeth II and Manufacturers of Toilet Preparations to HRH The Prince of Wales.”
Its products continued to attract a loyal following through the years. Florence Nightingale wrote a flowery missive thanking the shop for its “sweet-smelling nosegay.” And Ian Fleming favorite scent was #89—in his books, it’s the fragrance of choice for James Bond.
Today, a visit to the Floris shop is a delightful experience, not only for the fabulous scents but also for the wonderful wealth of vintage products and memorabilia on display. You can view elaborate tortoise shell hair combs for women, old letters and photographs . . .and choose a special fragrance to take home as a lasting reminder of its living history.
So, do you like a man to wear fragrance? Have you a special scent of your own, or you do like to try out diff
erent ones. (I’m a big fan of 4711, a light citrus-y scent that has an interesting history too.)
I’ve bee re-reading some of the early Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian, savoring not only the rousing descriptions of naval battles during the Napoleonic Wars, but the far more nuances textures of character that he creates. Friendship, fear, love, loss, bravery, boredom . . . O’Brian is a wonderful writer, with wry wit and black humor interspersed with lyrical observations of nature. But for me, what makes his prose even more memorable are the short passages—a paragraph, perhaps—where he suddenly makes me stop and take a deep breath, for the words evoke such a visceral reaction.
Here is a passage where Stephen Maturin, the strange, secretive ship’s surgeon has just smelled a certain scent of perfume on the coat of his best friend—the distinctive scent worn by the woman he desperately loves.
“It is unspeakably childish to be upset by a whiff of scent; but I am upset. . . He poured himself out a wineglassful of laudanum, closed one eye and drank it off. ‘Smell is of all senses by far the most evocative: perhaps because we have no vocabulary for it—nothing but a few poverty-stricken approximations to describe the whole vast complexity of odour—and therefore the scent, unnamed and unnamable, remains pure of association; it cannot be called upon again and again, and blunted by the use of a word; and so it strikes afresh every time, bringing with it circumstances of its first perception . . ."
I found this very poignant—and true. Scent stirs such sudden, visceral memories, perhaps even more so than pictures, touch or words. After I read this, it got me to thinking about my own reaction to scent. . . and here are a few of the smells that trigger strong memories from the past
New-mown grass: When I was a child we lived in a house built into a hill. My little bedroom had windows high on the wall that were barely above ground level. In summer, my father would mow the lawn in the early evening, and the scent of the grass, lushly sweet with the sun-warmed perfume of the long, lazy day, would flood the air. I’d watch his legs and the mower go back and forth, and then usually run out to walk along with him. A whiff of fresh cut grass carries me back to being seven or eight, and the simple delights of a summer evening.
The brine of the sea: I loved taking my bucket to the beach and exploring the tidal pools, finding all sorts of fascinating snails and minnows and mussels (that prompted turned into a noxious ooze when I brought them home.) But I loved the sense of wonder, of discovery, and I would happily putter for hours . . . cracking oysters to look for pearls . . . digging for pirate treasure. Today, the fresh scent of salt and seaweed conjures up memories of those afternoon adventures.
Apples: We had orchards near us, and fall always meant buying baskets of fresh picked apples. When I went away to college, my parents would always bring me and my roommates a big basketwhen they visited . . . the crisp scent of Macs, rosy with the first touches of cool air, always remind me of freshman year in Vanderbilt Hall.
Wisteria: The first house I owned, a quirky little weekend cottage with lots of eccentricities, had a huge screen porch, covered with wisteria vines. In spring, the flowers would bloom and the scent enveloped the whole house in a fairytale sweetness. Wisteria still reminds me of my first step into real adulthood.
Estee Lauder Super Cologne: My mother wore one brand for years, and somehow it seems to pervade all her possessions—books, papers, clothing. It was simply part of her, part of her essence. Nowadays I sometimes open a box of journals or photos, or storage bag of gloves and hat, and it’s there, still lingering—that soft swirl of scent that makes me stop and smile.
Toward the end of the book, Stephen walks through the woman's deserted house—she's run off to be the mistress of a rich, handsome man.
“In the waste-paper-basket there were some balled-up sheets, the only imperfection, apart from the living clock, in this desert of negation . . . they were lists in a servant’s hand, quite meaningless . . . He tossed them back, stood for a long moment listening to his heart, and walked straight into her dressing room. Here he found what he had known he should find: the stark bareness, the pretty satinwood furniture huddled against the wall was of no importance, did not signify; but here, coming from no particular shelf or cupboard, there was the ghost of her scent, n
ow a little stronger, now so tenuous that his most extreme attention could hardly catch it."
So what about you? Have you any special scent memories that conjure up vivid emotions?