‘Then as she once walked up and down in the White Friars’ church at Lynn, she felt a wonderfully sweet and heavenly savour, so that she thought she might have lived by it, if it would have continued. And in that moment, our Lord said to her, ‘Daughter, by this sweet smell you may know that there shall in a short time be a new Prior in Lynn…” ¤
At this uncertain time I’ve been reading this most marvellous Book of Margery Kempe, said to be the first autobiography in the English language. Mrs Kempe was the mother of fourteen, a mystic and sometime brewer of Kings Lynn: she was born around 1373. She travelled all over England and Europe, glorifying God; she even reached Jerusalem. Her book deals extensively with the Divine ravishment of the human senses, including that of smell. Margery, like all her contemporaries, equated sweet smells with the treasures and revelations of Heaven.
Hasn’t it been a peculiar week, though? Perhaps the strangest yet in this oddest of years. I have been glued to the wireless and the BBC News on the hour. I’ve been like that Imperial nursemaid, obsessed with l’affaire Dreyfuss, who came close to letting the Tsarevich drown in the bath: away in a world of my own. I have noted such curious portents in the natural world, too: a heart-shaped ring of toadstools sprouting in the night on the public highway; a lone buzzard circling overhead; a frost in Scotland; unnatural levels of rain and clouds of flies. Despite all the eccentric and dismaying weather, the weather office now announces that this June has been much warmer than the average. The earth seems to have shifted on its axis: we used to sit out in the back yard on midsummer evenings, bathed in sunshine till supper time. No longer: even if the rains stop in time the bench under the kitchen window is now deep in chilly shadow by 6.30pm. Curiouser and curiouser!
I wonder what’s going on. Some things are as ever. The Constance Spry roses, though battered, have flowered according to their meticulously allotted span: three and a half weeks. All finished and put away by 4th July: regular as clockwork. The privet hedges are now in flower; all too often overlooked or taken for granted, but smelling as exotic and penetrating as Spanish orange blossom. The garden is intensely luxuriant, even jungly; and my sense of smell is slightly skewed, as always in times of crisis.
After the Book of Margery Kempe I went on to Jill Dawson’s engrossing and ingenious new novel – ‘The Crime Writer’: an episode in the life of Patricia Highsmith. (Ms Dawson is always adroit as to matters olfactory: she has poor Mrs Thompson smelling of Chanel No 5 in her study of a notorious 1922 murder case, ‘Fred & Edie’). A leitmotif of the narrative is the insistent, invasive and slightly sinister fragrance of Coty’s L’Aimant; and the ‘atrocious’ smell of Pat’s pet snails, kept in pockets and handbags. I’d never thought of snails as having a smell – naïve of me: for everything does if you concentrate upon it.
Now you remember those tuberose bulbs – ‘The Pearl’ – I told you back in February? They duly arrived by post and I potted them up and put them in my bedroom window, one of the sunniest places in the house. Very fascinating to watch. First of all graceful arcs of slender lily leaves sprouted. And then – and my! are they thirsty plants, soaking up water like insatiable sponges – the leaves became wilder; more luxuriant and untidy. I moved the pot to the garden and “The Pearl” is now living mostly outside, coming indoors only on a few unusually chilly nights or when the rain reaches monsoon proportions. The flower buds are emerging – fat messy bundles on sturdy stems, almost like miniature corn on the cob. I shall let you know what happens next: Meanwhile I spin wild fantasies of the garden filled with a scent so strong I am driven indoors.
All thoughts of tuberoses lead one back to Fracas, still ineffably stylish and poised on the Les Senteurs shelves. The Collins Robert French-English dictionary defines ‘fracas’ thus:
“..crash…roar…din..,’annoncer une nouvelle a grand fracas’: to create a sensation with a piece of news..”
What an inspired name for a pretty wild scent, unique and outrageous in its time; a 1948 revival of the rococo tuberose oils that had once delighted Marie Antoinette and the Du Barry. A loud blaring scent to some; to others as frivolous, frilly and frothy as a wired Dior crinoline petticoat. I see it as most intensely pink perfume, of an almost ersatz shade: potentially more shocking than Shocking, but, withal, of a pearly petalled delicacy like the flowers that die so that their fragrance might live. It hangs over every subsequent tuberose perfume created, like the shadow of Rebecca de Winter – or Mrs Rochester, overhead in the attic: an exotic myth-bound memory; a threat to all newcomers in the field.
I have never met anyone who had the means or the daring to wear Fracas in its early days. It is not a provincial scent. Until I came to London I had never met this eminently metropolitan belle. She has had her up and downs over the past 70 years, la Fracas. Elderly fans tell me that like other legends – Ma Griffe, Je Reviens, Tabu – Fracas has known lean times. And then, in the late ’80’s, maybe in the wake of the new and increasingly audacious power perfumes, Fracas was reborn, with elegant new packaging and a price to match. I remember a Japanese gentleman, a quarter of a century ago, coming to the Harrods counter to buy eight bottles of the parfum concentration. He had a charming interpreter with him: when she relayed the total bill, the customer squealed and actually leapt into the air.
“Don’t worry,” said the interpreter. “He pay!”
And he did.
¤ The Book of Margery Kemp. Translated by B.A.Windeatt. Penguin edition 2004