My kind readers should pardon a much shorter and possibly rather addled piece, even after an unusual two weeks’ absence. I have had the ‘flu. The real old-fashioned sort – “the kind doctors prefer”, as those old TV ads used to say. Stinging eyes, blinding sinus headache, a fatal weakness in every limb, legs like boiled pasta, giddiness, fever, a wandering mind and all the rest of it. I don’t think I’ve felt like this since 2002 when I was ill for a fortnight at the time of the death of the last Queen Empress.
True ‘flu is unmistakable – you can tell the exact sinister moment when it hatches: and one of the symptoms is, with me anyway, a malevolently distorted sense of smell. While I was really bad, one especial fragrance seemed to take over my entire orbit – of necessity, my bedroom – to a suffocating degree. Being ill takes you right back to needy infancy: I’ve been feeling like that poor little Dauphin I told you about the other week, asphyxiated by the preternaturally perfumed presence of Mme de Polignac. Perfumes that had no actual existence in reality.
The first weekend I fell ill, I took a warm bath with a dose of delicious healing oil. But something short-circuited and the scent of that herbal immersion stayed with me for the next two weeks, day and night despite many other unfragranced baths, numerous changes of linen etc. It seemed to be coming from within me, as though this frail vessel had become porous. I could taste it in my mouth, smell it in slices of toast. I daresay that, living by perfume, my sense of smell is naturally over-tuned, so that when the normal running of the Good Body collapses, the accurate perception of odours is one of the first casualties. But it is strange: the redolence of that bath is still with me while the secondary infection of a heavy cold now renders any other scent undetectable. Let’s hope the sense of smell returns, quickly and in good order.
While my other capabilities have lain dormant I’ve done a certain amount of reading and, more than anything else, a great deal of “laying there”. What I did discover, was a most wonderful book by Elizabeth Grant. “Memoirs of a Highland Lady” was written initially for the author’s family circle; then published to great acclaim in 1898. It relates the first 33 years of the writer’s life at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Charming, vivId, prejudiced and funny the memoirs are packed with intricate intimate details of meals, clothes, washing procedures and all the minutiae of Regency daily life. I was especially struck by the following line:
“(Julia’s mother)…. was the Widow of the Alderman Hankey who died from putting brandy in his shoes when his feet were sore and hot with walking through the City, canvassing to be Lord Mayor: the chill of the evaporation produced apoplexy”.
But the idea of pouring in the brandy….! That anecdote that reminded me of the time I overdid the cooling peppermint oil in a heatwave and nearly finished myself off with hypothermia. Exactly the same phenomenon. And then, talking of peppermint, the Highland Lady describes the evening toilette of Willie Cummings, student army surgeon:
“…he dressed himself in his best carefully, and noticing that all the fine young men were scented, he provided himself with a large white pockethandkerchief (sic) of his mother’s which he steeped in peppermint water…’There’s an extraordinary smell of peppermint here,’ said Lord Erskine to Mrs Henry Siddons, as …(Willie)… turned and twirled to pass them, Willie flourishing the large pockethandkerchief in the most approved style.”
I hope my sense of smell comes back for Christmas. Meanwhile I’m mentally listing and reliving some favourite fragrances and shall offer these up for your possible interest next week. Hope this finds you “In The Festive Mood”!