Have you got your copy yet of ‘A Card From Angela Carter’ by Susannah Clapp? A fascinating memoir of the writer built around postcards sent by this fascinating woman, sure to appeal to all her admirers; as well as those who, like Lemon Wedge, are always inspired by the imagery, portability and accessibility of a picture postcard. Carter’s final novel was the entirely bewitching and screamingly funny “Wise Children”, the story of identical twins Dora and Nora who are defined by their signature scents – Mitsouko for Dora and Shalimar for Nora: one episode revolves around the sexual havoc that ensues when boyfriends trust to their sense of smell rather than their eyes and ears. A warning to us all.
Many perfume fanciers, women in particular, long for a signature scent; a perfume that will reflect their personality, advertise their presence and, like a memory or even a human soul, linger in the minds of others after they have departed – either from the party, the bed or from this world entirely. I used to know an elderly French lady who had married a Londoner and come to settle here in the 1930’s. During the Second World War her flat was a gathering place for Free French and other expatriates; they found the address, she said, by the trail of Shalimar. She once asked some French exiles what they missed most about home: “Ah, Mme! Les femmes parfumées!” English women have always been shy of applying scent with the reckless abandon of their Gallic sisters. They want to be remembered, nonetheless: a frequent request is from a young mother who is looking for a perfume that will stay in her children’s minds for a lifetime, adding another dimension to her immortality. Rita Hayworth’s daughter, whom I have mentioned elsewhere in these pages, went so far as to have a candle created imbued with her late mother’s perfume, to surround herself with the scent – the WARM scent – of the maternal prescence.
There is poignant anecdote told – I think by Jonathan Gathorne Hardy (maybe readers can help me?) – in a book on English public schools, of an elderly gentleman reduced to floods of tears at a school reunion by meeting a fellow pupil on whom 50 years before he had had a tremendous crush, “At school he always used to smell of tangerines….” . Scent as we all know prompts the memory with such a powerful,immediate and visceral impact; reminding me of Mae West’s trick of shuffling across the carpet to greet visitors so as to generate enough static to give the caller a sharp electric jolt when she shook hands or kissed. A signature scent may come by design or by happen-stance; it need not be your personal favourite, just the smell that others associate with you. Or if you are fortunate enough, it can even be your own natural odour as saints are said to smell of roses, and Alexander the Great of violets. The signature scent may not even be one that emanates from your own person, but the redolence of your ambience – the magical Mona di Orio always spoke of childhood memories of her grandmother being inextricably tied up with the scent of geraniums, dry in the summer heat and then the delicious smell of the parched leaves and soil revived and made fragrant by the evening ritual watering.
The desire for a scent unique to oneself seems to be more widespread than ever: bespoke perfumes are heavily in demand despite the high cost involved and long waiting lists. The supreme luxury to indulge in to be sure, but I am not entirely convinced; it is a difficult trick to pull off, not so much for the perfumer but for the client. You can end up, I think, in the artificial position of over-analysing likes and dislikes, while straining for effects of which you still remain unsure. And the unfamiliarity with the technicalities of ingredients and manufacturing methods can add to this, together with the perennial problem of conveying olfactory feelings and desires verbally. There remain at least two other alternatives.
One is to take time to browse through perfume departments and particularly specialist shops where there is a wide and ample choice of scents which you can try and analyse at your leisure, until (maybe with a little guidance from sympathetic staff) you find a scent which calls to you, quite literally. Calls to you through your nose and brain, so that you know you can live with and in this through the seasons, day and night for as long as you wish, gradually inducing a Pavlovian reflex with your sillage. Alternatively – and I think this can be amusing besides seductive and highly effective – choose not a single scent but an ingredient, or a theme. Take, say, tuberose: you might define yourself with this oil but do so with a whole wardrobe of tuberose scents, starting with the classic pink froth of Fracas; through the fresh green of Carnal Flower; the sweetness of Bubblegum Chic; and reaching a crescendo with the flamboyant tropicana of Tubereuse Couture.