The Power of Perfumed Prose


Literary Licence - Scenting scene

“This morning, Tegus welcomed me again with an arm clasp and cheek touch. I wasn't startled this time, and I breathed in at his neck. How can I describe the scent of his skin? He smells something like cinnamon-- brown and dry and sweet and warm. Ancestors, is it wrong for me to imagine laying my head on his chest and closing my eyes and breathing in his smell?”

Shannon Hale, Book of a Thousand Days

I am an avid book-lover and my groaning shelves and my mum’s loft are testament to my bibliophilia, which continues to grow!

If you have a love of fragrance and literature it is only a matter of time before you notice a cross-over, and the influence of the former on the latter (and vice versa). This can be dependent on the genre of book you are exposed to, but  growing up I was surrounded at home and in school by Victorian and Gothic literature, French and British classics, (I confess that among others Jilly Cooper and Georgette Heyer were my teenage diversion!).  However, it is only as an adult and in part to my early training in aromatherapy that I became more aware of and noticed the stealthy power authors and writers possess over the reader, with their aromatic passages, scent metaphors and perfumed allusions.   They pull you deeper into the narrative, seduce the senses and secure your attention.

How often have you found that a scene or passage in a book, a play or a stanza in a poem is more evocative because of a scent reference; it immediately creates a visceral experience and a tangible physicality, where other words may fail:

“But a smell shivered him awake.

It was a scent as old as the world. It was a hundred aromas of a thousand places. It was the tang of pine needles. It was the musk of sex. It was the muscular rot of mushrooms. It was the spice of oak. Meaty and redolent of soil and bark and herb. It was bats and husks and burrows and moss. It was solid and alive - so alive! And it was close.

The vapors invaded Nicholas' nostrils and his hair rose to their roots. His eyes were as heavy as manhole covers, but he opened them. Through the dying calm inside him snaked a tremble of fear.

The trees themselves seemed tense, waiting. The moonlight was a hard shell, sharp and ready to ready be struck and to ring like steel.

A shadow moved.

It poured like oil from between the tall trees and flowed across dark sandy dirt, lengthening into the middle of the ring. Trees seem to bend toward it, spellbound. A long, long shadow...”

Stephen M. Irwin, The Dead Path

This observation led me to re-visit some old favourites and classics and also to search out authors and titles that use scent as a narrative tool.  My eyes have been on stalks and my brain racing to gather up all the wonderful trails of ‘scentences’, placed like rose thorns amidst the text to prick  your attention.  I sense my reading list may grow to unfeasible lengths!

So duly inspired, I am now persuaded to start a series of posts called  ‘TheBookSniff Chronicles’,  each post will focus on a 'great read' and how scent enhances our connection to the story and the overall reading experience.   Our fragrant explorations will examine how 'smell' is enmeshed in the narrative to evoke a feeling or state, a sense of time; a place, or to identify a person or a scene.

Themes  of society, status, symbolism, fashion will also be explored, whether the fragrance descriptions used are reflective of the era  and social mores?  I am thinking it might be a fun challenge to imagine a few experimental recipes and re-create the ‘fumes conjured up in the texts, so that you could wear, spray or diffuse the Odour as you were reading the book.

Am I setting myself an over-ambitious task?  I have also realised that I shall have to re-read many of my chosen tomes!

A a small teaser, here is a 'quote' from my first BookSniff Chronicle, the subject of my first post in the series:

“The heavy scent of the roses seemed to brood over everything”

Roses& Mahogany-Paul-De-Longpre
Roses& Mahogany-Paul-De-Longpre

Can you guess what it will be?