One of the first references to perfume I came across in print was in “What Katy Did”. Enthused by the very young Susan Hampshire in the TV series I read my first copy to rags, and my current surviving edition is an Armada paperback from 1967 with crumbling pages now the colour of gravy. In this text the adorable Clover Carr’s stated preference for “eau de cologne” is rendered as “scent”. She’s playing grown-ups and planning on having a large pool full of cologne in the back yard into which she can dip the hankies of passing schoolchildren. As an infant I was foxed by this term, pronouncing it to myself as “eau de kol-JEAN”. Which may have been a common problem, thus leading to Armada’s editorial alteration.
When I grew up and went to work at Harrods I met Lana, the glorious Houbigant Girl, who came from the Balkans and looked exactly like a larger than lifesize Victorian wax doll with huge blue eyes like coat buttons and ringlets nearly to her waist. She was there to sell Quelques Fleurs & did it with unique panache because she had exactly the same fantasy as Clover Carr. O! she had the gift all right, and after listening to Lana’s silvery-voiced fantasies of cathedral aisles running with conduits of Quelques Fleurs and guests holding up blue silk parasols against scent pouring from the skies, every customer was begging for the 100ml size.
Every December when the parcels start to come, I think of the Christmas Eve in “What Katy Did At School”. Snowbound in New England, Clover + Katy receive two wonderful elaborately assembled crates of gifts and food parcels from their family back home in Burnet, Ohio. The smaller box is filled with flowers, wadded in cotton wool against the freeze – roses, geraniums, heliotrope and carnations. Beneath, exquisitely packed, are two quilted satin glove cases “delicately scented”, one mauve, one lilac. It’s a marvellous image; the flowers being carefully removed and revived from their long chilled journey, placed in glasses of water and distributed around the school with pears, apples, prunes and crunchy jumbles. What is a jumble?
Though I’m also exceedingly fond of the company of the March girls, the Katy books are freer, easier, funnier and less moralising. More modern, shorter, crisper. Even the saintly and somewhat enigmatic Cousin Helen doesn’t grate, being sufficiently self-indulgent as to wear bracelets, and to travel with her own flower vase – luxuries at which Marmee, I think, would have had a fit. As does Mrs Hall next door – “Ma said she fears your cousin is a worldly person”. “Katy” has something for everyone and every situation. Anyone who has suffered the discomfort of an overly protracted summer should read the first chapter of “What Katy Did At School” and spend the night with Elsie and Johnny in their terrible feather bed at Mrs Worrett’s baking, fly-blown, pumpkin-coloured farmhouse. “Mrs Worrett never mounted in hot weather”. Completely unrelated to the rest of the book, this short section is worthy of Elizabeth Bowen at her most comically sinister. It’s one of my favourite passages of the entire canon.
Noel Coward slept on into eternity after a quiet Jamaican evening in bed with eggs on a tray and an E Nesbit. Maybe Susan Coolidge’s books will provide the same rite of passage for me. And I’d prefer the eggs scrambled.
FOOTNOTE: the Cosmic Scrambled Egg.
Scrambled eggs are immortalised on film by being messed around by a lovelorn Joan Fontaine in the first reel of REBECCA.
An Harrods recipe of my time, much circulated in Perfumery, called for a dollop of mayonnaise to be dropped into the eggs at the moment of serving. Very rich – but excellent after a late evening on counter.
A Very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to You All!
Yours, most Warmly & Gratefully,