The first violets of the year are opening on the grass verge by my bus stop. Very early this year. Strange that such beautiful and iconic flowers should spring from the litter of crisp packets, flattened Coke tins and ciggie butts; akin to Swift’s “gaudy tulips sprung from dung” and not a whit diminished by their sordid fertiliser. The leaves are large, heart-shaped and a brilliant lettuce-green; and while the flowers are not as large or fragrant as Parma’s the scent is a knock-out.
And not quite as you imagine: every year I am pleasantly and slightly shocked by it. It’s definitely a carnal, indolic smell. Sweet of course, and musky, but sometimes almost like the faintest whiff of fresh meat: not at all like the traditional Devon Violets bath salts or those cheap mauve cachous “traditionally eaten by maids to sweeten the breath”. Violets in the raw have a sexy, sensual, fleshy smell, albeit extremely subtle: hence their use in modern “skin scents” (not a very attractive term: and is not every perfume intended for the skin?). Malle‘s Dans Tes Bras is a classic of the genre: violet blended with iris, suede and cashmeran, just lightly brushing the wearer’s skin,alighting on it like a butterfly.
And yet the violet was beloved by the late Victorians as a symbol of innocence, shyness, and modest womanhood. There was a rage for them in the garden, the conservatory, as a perfume, as a crystallized delicacy, a wine and as a dress accessory – posies of the real thing, and made of silk or velvet to pin on hats and gowns. Violet became excessively popular as a colour and as one of the newly fashionable flower names for girls: Violet Trefusis, Violet, Duchess of Rutland, Violet Bonham Carter; Sherlock Holmes’s client Violet Hunter; Violet Carson,and on the new cinematograph, Violet Hopkins. Old catalogues list wonderfully named plant varieties for cultivation – Marie Louise, Neapolitan, Victoria Regina, White Czar and Comte Brazza.
Both sexes doused themselves in violet fragrances: even our dear staid George V loved Trumper’s Violettes d’Ajaccio, maybe influenced by his mother Queen Alexandra, who lived in a haze of violet and rose. So ubiquitous was the use of violet perfume that it fell quite undeservedly out of fashion in the mid-20th century, hopelessly stigmatised by that other awful phrase – “old ladies’ scent”. (As we hear on the news today that the expression “old dears” is to be banned, wouldn’t it be nice to see the back of that silly phrase, too?) For years violet scent was very scarce in the shops, and then around the late 1990’s perfumers once more returned to its magic, re-invented for a new generation.
Now we have the quintessentially 21st century extravaganza Lipstick Rose which wittily subverts all the traditional presentation and shows up a dazzling shocking pink bouquet of raspberry, rose, violet, grapefruit and aldehydes. The Unicorn Spell also turns the old ideas inside out and sparkles like an icy green forest where violets brave the frosts to exude their odour. For those who desire to swathe themselves in an aura of purple and flame velvet, try Caron‘s Aimez Moi: a baroque fantasy of Parma violets, apricots and vanilla. Gourmand to a degree, smell me…eat me.
But there is another aspect to violets – what we might call the “Political Perfume”- and to this I shall return another time.