Madeleine Smith: a vignette

I have mentioned before the case of Madeleine Smith and the excellent film based thereon made by David Lean in 1950 starring his then wife, Ann Todd (variously described by contemporary PR as “the British Garbo” or “the Pocket Garbo”). I never met Miss Todd though I saw her once in rural Suffolk of all places (adjoining holiday houses) and heard her announced over the tannoy backstage at Stratford Upon Avon – “Miss Tutin and Miss Todd for Dame Peggy!” Though I have always imagined her brunette, Madeleine Smith is perfectly incarnated by the glacial almost albino blonde Todd, wearing probably the most authentic crinolines ever seen on screen. The facts of the case presented are also reliable and accurate, if necessarily telescoped.

The eldest daughter of a prosperous Glasgow family, Smith was tried in 1857 for the murder of her former lover, a Frenchman named L’Angelier by whom she had been seduced and to whom she had written indiscreet letters with which he attempted to blackmail her. L’Angelier died in agonies of arsenic poisoning: Madeleine Smith was said to have administered this in a cup of cocoa. The defence claimed she had purchased the poison only to whiten her skin. The uniquely Scottish verdict of the court was Not Proven; David Lean’s presentation of characters and case is so detached and remote that the viewer is inclined to concur, foxed by Smith/Todd’s elegant inscrutability. The costume design complements the enigmatic character of Madeleine remarkably. I have discussed her shoes in an earlier piece but we should also note her headgear, a succession of plumed and furred hats and toques: is she a trapped animal, enmeshed by the predatory L’Angelier? Or is Madeleine herself the bird of prey? A wild animal turning in ferocious panic on her persecutor? Even when finally trapped in the dock,her severe if chic bonnet is trimmed with a feather. Only in her introductory scene, before we know anything of her intrigues, do we see a young girl crowned with flowers.

Those who relish the ciphers and codes and short-hand of old cinema, so adroitly used by directors to circumvent the censor, will find a great deal to appreciate here. Note the frequent close-ups of L’Angelier’s cane with which he makes much swagger. Look out for the scene where after an evening in the drawing-room with her parents and prospective fiancee, Madeleine surreptitiously puts on scent before slipping out into the sodden basement area to meet her lover.

“Madeleine…you are wearing perfume..” he says throatily; the rain comes down in stair rods in a sudden storm, and it is immediately clear in those four words that he sees her (and maybe she is) as a completely abandoned woman – and treats her as such. Wearing perfume in middle class Victorian Glasgow is akin to wearing the scarlet letter

Lean and his team were of a generation almost within touching distance of the case: Madeleine Smith had only been dead for some 20 years (she went to the USA after the trial and is said to have invented the table mat). They knew how significant it was for a respectable girl then to put on perfume. Remember the chapter in Little Women in which Meg goes to a dance at a wealthy friend’s and is induced to “polish..her neck and arms with some fragrant powder” to Laurie’s intense disapproval and her own subsequent deep shame. Even as late as 1922/23, as her inspired biographer Rene Weis notes, during the uproar surrounding the trial and execution of Edith Thompson lurid tabloid pieces made much of her prodigious use of perfume and scented baths: a sure sign of supposed depravity. L’Angelier’s line in the movie is a masterstroke of compression and allusion: audiences in 1950 probably read it more clearly than those today. Like Deborah Kerr’s clipping on of an earring in The End of the Affair; and Fred MacMurray kicking the rug straight in Double Indemnity it speaks volumes of passionate and ultimately tragic illicit sex.

So what perfume is Madeleine wearing for her lover? Who can say? She buys rosewater for her younger sister in a later scene; has money in her pocket and access to her father’s account at the chemist-apothecary. Her own taste in dress is shown to be impeccable; she is elegant, fastidious and in the fashion. I think the scent would be chosen to please the lover rather than herself. Miss Smith might have shared her sister’s rose or perhaps lavender water: she takes a bottle of the latter to court with her. Madeleine (L’Angelier’s passionate “Mimi”) probably chooses musk, civet or ambergris, the legendary aphrodisiacs of antiquity. I do not think a perfume that would have been available in 1857 now exists in its original form: animal rights and health and safety legislation have outlawed so many of the old ingredients, and our tastes in fragrance have radically changed. But let’s compose a theoretical formula for Madeleine. Something of the creamy soft muskiness of Musc Ravageur; the pungent civet of the original Jicky and Mouchoir; the animal leatheriness of Knize Ten; the density and richness of Phul Nana; the hot powdery voluptuousness of Ambre Precieux. And finally the narcotic intensity of the Bulgarian roses of Creed’s Fleurs de Bulgarie: a perfume that in its prototype form originated in the 1840’s. Cruel, peppery, lascivious roses not baby-pink buds. Just as posterity and Lean’s film leaves us in suspense as to Madeleine Smith’s guilt or innocence, so must her fragrance: but, as my grandmother always used to say, “they can’t hang you for thinking”.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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