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

Catherine Maxwell, Scents and Sensibility: Perfume in Victorian Literary Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2017) xviii + 361pp, 13 colour plates. £30 Hb. 9787-0-19-870175-0

Today’s perfume industry is worth millions of pounds, but for all the scientific sophistication of modern fragrances, advertisers still struggle with a fundamental sensory conundrum, namely, how can scent be conveyed or understood in written or visual terms?

Catherine Maxwell’s original and engaging study explores how poets and novelists approached this problem during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its punning title signalling its interest not simply in the literature of perfume but also the scientific and cultural developments which surrounded it. Her ambitious approach leads to a book in which penetrative textual analysis and biographical detail go hand in hand with discussions of chemistry, botany, household management, advertising, fashion, and social etiquette. This is genuinely interdisciplinary scholarship, though her primary concern remains the poetry of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, from Baudelaire to Swinburne, Pater, Wilde, Michael Field, and Arthur Symons.

As Maxwell explains, male poets seemed especially fascinated by the perfumes coming onto the market from the 1850s, not least because they were no longer essentially mimetic. Rather than merely copying nature, which no decadent would endorse, perfumiers began to distil and blend their fragrances in ever subtler and more complex ways, placing the highly trained nose of the so-called olfactif on a par with the palate of the wine connoisseur. The unique interactions between these perfumes and the bodies of their wearers produced still greater allure, and Maxwell offers richly revealing discussions of poems such as Symons’s ‘Peau d’Espagne’, a paean to a perfume notorious in its day for suggesting the aroma of the female body. ‘There is no necessary difference in artistic value between a good poem about a flower in the hedge and a good poem about the scent in a sachet,’ Symons remarked, and Maxwell teases out the implications of his claim with exemplary skill through readings of poems, essays, and correspondence.

What makes this book so distinctive, however, is not so much its level of literary analysis (impressive though this is) as its intriguing engagement with perfume itself. As a discipline, literary studies has long tended to privilege the interpretative over the instructive, but Maxwell sees no disjunction between the two. Rather than simply placing Symons’s remark about the scent in a sachet in the Decadent context of its time and recycling familiar arguments about the superiority of art to nature, Maxwell picks up the title of his essay, ‘Being a Word on Behalf of Patchouli’ and explores what the substance meant in Victorian culture. This leads to considerations of patchouli itself, an exotic Indian plant used as a perfume and insect repellent. Heady and pungent, it proved too overpowering for use in ‘polite’ society but was popular in the demi-monde, favoured, like other such heavy scents, by prostitutes or, in male fragrances of the 1880s onwards, by those who flaunted their willingness to breach sexual decorum. The olfactory meanings and messages of patchouli were elaborate ones, and Maxwell does an excellent job of explaining the scent’s significance in late-Victorian fashion as well as literature.

Maxwell divides her book into eight chapters. In ‘Top Notes: Victorian Perfume Contexts’ (16-65), she explains, with the help of some fascinating advertisements from the period, how Victorian perfume – soaps, bouquets, nosegays – was strongly gendered, with women (especially young women) encouraged to ‘favour light and floral fragrances’ rather than those containing ‘animalic extracts such as musk and civet’ (29). Scents for men were initially governed by similar rules, but heavier scents grew in popularity from the 1860s. By the 1890s, Harrods and the Army and Navy stores stocked a wide range of male cosmetics, many of which drew inspiration from India, China, and Japan. Through references to perfume catalogues and etiquette books, Maxwell demonstrates that perfume was as complex a language in Victorian society as flowers themselves. She also makes helpful links to its representation in the Romantic poetry which provided such important underpinning for early-Victorian culture, with insightful discussion of Keats and Shelley in particular.

This chapter sets the tone for what follows, moving seamlessly between accounts of the composition, manufacture and usage of various perfumes (many of which are now unable to be made because they contain illegal substances), their reputation, and their treatment in literature and art. Her second chapter, ‘Perfumed Melodies’ (66-84), considers the relationship between perfumes and remembrance in the nineteenth century, before she moves on to detailed considerations of Swinburne and Pater (85-134) and John Addington Symonds and the lesser-known Lafcadio Hearn, a passionate enthusiast for Japanese culture (135-81), whose work did much to popularise Far Eastern art in Britain.

Perhaps the book’s most striking chapter is the one dealing with the various manifestations of Tuberose in late Victorian poetry (182-200). From the argument between Wilde and André Raffalovich concerning its syllabic formulation (‘tube-rose’ versus ‘tube-er-rose’) to the flower’s sometimes menacing erotic significance, Maxwell untangles a skein of references and allusions which amounts almost to a hidden language of olfactory Decadence. Certainly, the homosexual and lesbian writers she examines – Wilde, Symonds, Raffalovich, Field, for example – possessed finely nuanced senses of smell and used perfume at times as an instrument for encoding transgressive attraction and desire. The chapter on Field (201-39) offers exemplary readings of important poems, as well as recognising the implications of sensory allusion in their work. A seventh chapter on the dandies of the 1890s (240-82), which focuses particularly on Wilde and Symons, is equally perceptive and persuasive, notably when exploring the ways in which Wilde used perfume as an important part of his self-stylization, before the book concludes with responses to perfume in the modernist era, a section notable for a discussion of the once notorious Sinister Street (1913) by Compton Mackenzie (297-304).

Scents and Sensibility is written with clarity and verve, its finely wrought analyses mercifully free of jargon. It is shrewd, drily humorous, and extremely well researched. Augmented with attractive colour plates (though lacking ‘scratch and sniff’ panels) and produced with OUP’s usual scrupulousness, it is at once informative and entertaining. Its dandies, poets, and poseurs offer valuable lessons for today’s world of metrosexuals and their ‘grooming products’.

Nick Freeman, Loughborough University