Big Shopper

jane-austen

 

A lovely lady wrote to me this week. She is writing an historical novel, and was curious to know more about shopping for perfume, as it would have been at the time of the Regency. We are talking of a period exactly 200 years ago when the whole etiquette of modern retail was really getting into its stride in Britain. The cities were growing like mad, the roads were improving, the railways were almost in sight. We read about Jane Austen’s aunt shop-lifting lace in Bath – a mysterious episode! – and Mr Bronte’s purchases for the children in Leeds, specifically that famous box of toy soldiers. The Haworth stationer in old age remembered how the Bronte girls were always his best customers, and how grumpy they were if ever he ran out of paper.

 

In the great cities ‘going shopping’ was already one of the favourite pastimes of the well-to-do and the bored. So, in 1817, with Napoleon recently banged-up on St Helena, and with peace declared after a quarter-century of war, where would you have bought scent?

 

Remember that at this time perfume was not really defined or sold by gender – ‘male’ and ‘female’ perfumes would not become classified as such for another century. Scent was sold promiscuously. Perfume lovers at the time of the Regency bought whatever was fashionable and “comme il faut”  wherever they found it. Manners then were less inhibited in some ways (chamber pots in the dining room sideboard); more so in others. For refined wearers of perfume their entire ambience was perfumed: their furniture, clothes and accessories, their bath water – but not their actual flesh. Neat scent applied direct to the skin was considered injurious to health, playing havoc with the volatile humours of the body.

 

The concept of the department store was yet to be thought of. A few names familiar to us today were already current. Although they were not then primarily perfumers, the tailors Creed of Conduit Street were already creating small amounts of exclusive bespoke fragrance for favoured clients. Perfume was also much sold in apothecaries’ shops – this is because it was regarded also as a healing, medicinal preparation. Sometimes you would find it also being sold in the patisseries and confectionery boutiques of the Regency era, alongside jellies and cordials. If this seems odd, think of the way we cook today with orange flower water, rose-water, saffron, edible flowers and the like.

 

Many folk would have ingested herbal or citrus colognes as health remedies on the principle that what smells good will do you good. Consequently perfume would also have been sold by wise women, charlatans, healers, fairground hucksters, pedlars, quacks, witches, fortune-tellers and others of like ilk.

 

These shady characters aside, there was always something suspect about nearly all shop-workers. Anyone “in trade” was automatically degraded. Retailers were necessarily perpetually “on show” and therefore immodest, pushy and mercenary. They perforce mixed with all sorts, with no regard to station or social “place”. They might well be religious dissenters (shop work and nonconformity often went together) and so were doubly suspect. Shopkeepers in many early novels are hideously evil-tempered, crabbed and misanthropic: trying to prove their respectability while chasing a hard-earned crust. Those retailers who sold magical, seductive, luxurious perfume were likely to be of a especially ambiguous reputation.

 

Perhaps it was safer to make perfume at home. Girls of all classes – if leisure and money permitted – would have been taught by their mothers to prepare herbal and floral waters in the still-room of the family home. There, they would have also made fragranced salves, pot pourri, soaps, moisturisers, washes, pomanders, candles and ointments. Raw materials would have been grown in the garden, or bought in the markets or from merchants and travelling pedlars.

 

Perfumery began to be used in a more modern way during the Regency era. This reflected the way that clothes and costume had changed in the last years of the 18th century. Garments for both sexes became much more simple. Cotton and light woollen fabrics became enormously fashionable. These were washable, so people became cleaner. False hair was abandoned after being widely used for over a century: hair hygiene and fastidious personal cleanliness became all the style.

 

Therefore heavy musky perfumes which covered, masked and camouflaged body odours went out; and light citric/flowery colognes came in. Napoleon – “The Corsican Ogre” – was the Great National Enemy but he was still admired in Britain with a kind of horrified fascination – and his passion for drenching himself in bright crisp colognes was much copied by those who could afford it. There was a brief lull in the fighting in 1802 following the Peace of Amiens. Anyone who could afford it dashed across the Channel to Paris to study Napoleon, his elegant consort¤ and the latest styles of the Consulate.

 

After George IV (formerly the Regent) died in 1830, the drawers in his apartments were found to be crammed with all sorts of interesting things. Flasks of opium, laudanum and cherry brandy with other stimulants and painkillers. And also, endless locks of women’s hair, long-preserved love tokens from years gone by. All powdered and stuck up with grease and dressings; all reeking of long-ago scents.

 

¤ Josephine Bonaparte, by the way, spent far more on perfume than any person in the whole of French history: and that includes such famous fragrance-fanciers as Henri III and Marie Antoinette. Mme Bonaparte had her own creations specially prepared at companies such as Rance, Houbigant and Lubin – all still extant today.

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Wise Men From The East

 

We have just passed – and some of us celebrated – the Feast of the Epiphany which falls on January 6th. Perhaps it was me, but there seemed this year to be an extra emphasis on the ritualistic story from St Matthew’s Gospel. The Visit of the Kings to worship the Infant Christ with magnificent gifts strikes an obvious chord, however crude, with our modern and somewhat debased ideas of Christmas. We can all relate to the concept of giving and receiving lavish presents – dream-gifts of fabulous worth. And, by this time in the story of the First Noel, we have moved on a year or two from the Holy Family camping out in the stable. The Kings  –  Magi –  Wise Men visited a boy of somewhat under two years old, housed in what appear to have been moderately settled circumstances.

When I was small myself, I found the quiet domestic setting of the Theophany something of an anticlimax after the drama of the stable and the manger. It seemed rather detached from the theatrical frenzy of Christmas. Other people appear to think the same, as figurines of the Kings are often placed in cribs, besides those of the shepherds and the oxen. Nowadays  –  maybe because it seems fashionable to stress the rustic squalor and trauma of Christ’s birth – I find it’s something of a relief, and more reflective, to imagine the Family in a more orthodox setting, clean and reasonably comfortable.

The Epiphany has long lost its status as the grand royal finale of the Twelve Days’ celebration. Christmas-tide lasts liturgically right into February, but the modern hasty world is desperate to leap forwards to St Valentine, if not Easter. If you mention Christmas after the statutory Bank Holidays people go all quiet and give you furtive looks, as though they have participated in something shameful. We have truncated the long slow leisurely feast of Christmas which lit up mid-winter and relieved both the outer and inner darkness. But we have failed to replace it with anything more stimulating than the sterile negativity of ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Dry January’ and S.A.D. The fathers of the ancient church knew more about human psychology and the reasons of the heart than is usually assumed.

As was no doubt intended by the Wise Men, and by St Matthew, the three gifts never fail to fascinate. We can all appreciate the symbolism of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But one may  ponder on other meaningful luxuries that might have been brought – food, wine¤, gems, flowers, spices, clothing, fabrics.  Books, spells, runes, horoscopes. For those of us who love scent it is remarkable that perfume should feature so prominently –  twice over.

The Magi’s gifts were not uniquely imperishable. What became of them? Did they survive for centuries? Are they extant somewhere today?¤¤  Or did the Holy Family spend the gold on daily expenses? Some modern gospel commentators are keen on this idea. Maybe the gold financed the Flight into Egypt which took place shortly after the exotic visitors departed for the East. Was the myrrh used at Christ’s burial? Was the frankincense burned as an offering in the Temple at Jerusalem? Who shall say – but you know what? – I think we should have been told by the gospel writers if this were the case. Such pragmatism seems against the whole spirit of the episode.

My opinion is worth less than nothing but I would imagine that the gifts were hidden away; preserved, closely guarded by Christ’s mother. They all had a highly practical value but I think they remained concealed, buried even, like presents in a folk tale. Pregnant with meaning, ominous and auspicious in significance. Frankincense may have represented worship; myrrh – healing, suffering, death and entombment. But the baffling, even frightening, nature of these mystic gums would only be intensified in the mind of the thoughtful girl we are told that Mary was. Perfume resins require some kind of human action to ignite them: to release their powers via heat, fire or warmth of the skin. Perfume is transient. It is a link carrying prayer heavenwards. It awakens physical human desire as well as a communion with the Divine.

And of course frankincense and myrrh would have been as costly as the gold: all three gifts were of equal opulence. We know how disconcerting, embarrassing, even alarming it can be to receive a present of what seems to be disproportionate value. Imagine these presents laid out in a carpenter’s house in ancient Bethlehem while the well-groomed camels and caparisoned horses of the Magi stamped outside in the narrow street and the neighbours gawped. It occurs to me that Mary, having aready had audience of the Angel Gabriel, may have linked the heavenly fragrance of his wings with the perfumed treasures now set before her and her Child. And, as is well attested, heaven itself is scented by the prayers of the saints.

¤ thus linking the Epiphany with that first and most intriguing of Jesus’s miracles: the episode at the Cana wedding.

¤¤ The Monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos claims to house the presents: or a portion of them, at least. The skulls of the Three Kings lie in Cologne Cathedral.

Health and Efficiency

dryad

 

Everyone’s throwing themselves into the New Year with abandon. It’s good to see. It’s a fine thing to be alive. We are planning various sprees at Les Senteurs. Out in the wider world, folk are getting fit and fleet. Each year, directly after Christmas, you see a great hatch-out of runners pounding the pavements – all resplendent and glowing in brand new fluorescent togs. Many of them (somewhat shy) emerge only under the cover of the kindly darkness. As the weeks of January fly by, the runners seem to fade away.

Others have already managed to lose weight, even when sedentary. A colleague of my youngest brother was recruited to play Father Christmas at the office party. By the end of the evening – underneath all the red velveteen, cotton wool and spirit gum – he’d sweated off five pounds.

So this got us all at the shop thinking and reflecting. We pondered on how many little kids (some adults too) get the horrors at the sight of Santa and have to be taken out, shrieking. I remember saying to my father on Christmas Eve, “please let Santa come…..but not while I’m awake!” Pa said, “don’t worry. That will never happen!”

I’d just had a shock in our local toy shop. All I remember now is the smell of hot linoleum on a walkway around an atrium; and a dreadful blaze of spot-lit, roaring, guffawing crimson at the end of an enfilade. It was Father Christmas – in his Grotto – but it might as well have been the Devil. I had to be taken out.

Now we had this little pow-wow as I say, and one of our dear customers – a very perspicacious and sophisticated gentleman – suggested that it might be the smell of Santa that upsets some children so terribly. The smell of a grubby hot hired costume, and of the perspiring stressed creature inside. Especially if the secret Santa were not over fond of regular hot water and soap. Very likely on his uppers, career-wise, Mr Claus might well emit a rank and feral odour to catch unthinking and instinctive infants at their most vulnerable; a most pungent plangent scent of unfamiliar danger.

Perhaps this might also account for panic attacks at the circus, too. The reek of the ring, the sawdust, the detritus, the canvas, the hysterical audience, the wild beasts. The performers, above all, exuding their own tensions and fears through their paws and pores. I was taken out – once again – aged about three. There was something about the entry of a troupe of poodles dancing on their hind legs which set me off. This led in turn to a series of nightmares which lasted for years. These dreams featured blue dogs bearing basins, their entry into my bedroom inevitably heralded in sleep by a spectral drum roll.

Maybe the smell of “lovely rice pudding for dinner again” is what made Mary Jane scream so wildly. Hallucinogenic nutmeg, the aroma of boiled milk and the brown baked mackintosh topping does make some people queasy. Surely there can be few things more disturbing than having a foodstuff that the nose rejects pushed into your mouth with a cold and remorseless metal spoon. Almost five years ago I discussed rice pudding in this column. I mentioned then the phantom farinaceous smell that used to hang over a certain quarter of Leicester. Was the nose of my younger self trying to send me a message? It is very odd. I now discover that a set of relatives of whom I then knew nothing once lived there. Since to me this nursery dessert has such a homely comforting fragrance, I can only suppose that like was calling to like.

Unpacking Our New Year

cary-grant-and-poodle

 

I – and millions like me – have had this dreadful cold germ since Christmas and over the New Year. There’s been an awful smell trapped in my nose. It was something like the incineration of damp cardboard boxes – maybe the former domicile of cats – piled on a winter bonfire and burned like obdurate heretics, “au bois vert”. What a way for a fragrance maven to see in 2017! Heigh ho, there you go: at least I have my imagination and my memories.

And there’s still plenty to read. Now, for instance, there was a long piece in the Times* all about H.G.Wells, to mark his 150th anniversary. Notoriously amorous, he had an affair with the beautiful spy, Moura Budberg¤. Virginia Woolf school-girlishly referred to her as Moura Bedbug. So here’s a neat segue into the curious fact that our word ‘coriander’ is derived from the ancient Greek – ‘koris’ – for this obscene pest. The lovely fragrant herb (currently so fashionable with perfumers) was thought by our ancestors to smell like a bed bug, presumably when the insect was squashed against the walls or bedstead (the only way to catch them) with a deftly wielded cake of primitive soap. I have never yet met a bed bug – but I wonder, just as in the way that humans used to see colour differently¤¤, did Man’s nose also formerly play tricks quite unknown to us? Did the terrible  perfumes of the ancient world suspended in goat fat and rancid wine smell irresistible to Caesar and Cleopatra? Almost certainly, yes.

H.G.Wells himself, so the ladies said, smelled wonderful – even Biblical. He was blissfully redolent of honey and walnuts. (One of my very favourite food combos). We remember Alexander the Great’s natural odour of violets, Queen Victoria’s orange blossom aura and Elisabeth Bourbon’s exhalation of roses. And –  even more inexplicably – the one or two very heavy smokers I have known who exuded nothing but a delicious fragrance of peaches and cream, dewy freshness and flowers. A phenomenon which defies all expectation: and which must yet be explored in one of those expensive extensive ‘surveys’ we are always reading about.

You know I’m often referring to the presentation of perfume in the movies; the way stars play with it and talk about it – but take care never actually to wear it? Well, I have now found for us that powerful exception that proves the rule.

My brother and I exchanged DVDs at Christmas: coincidentally both were from the ‘Cary Grant Collection’. Die-hard Grant fans might have felt a bit let down, for these movies are essentially Mae West and Dietrich pre-Hays Code vehicles respectively, from the early 1930’s. “Cash & Cary” is just the dark young man in the background. But – judge for yourselves – why not run Mae in I’M NO ANGEL one afternoon? You’ll have the pleasure of two scenes in which Tira –  lion-tamer and ‘grande horizontale’ – fools around with an perfume atomiser, and also with a rather suggestive glass wand-applicator. And the camera lingers on Mae applying the perfume – heaviest red italics here – To Her Person. The context leaves the viewer in no doubt that this is the finishing touch of extreme rudeness: the apogee of egregious wilful shameless promiscuity.

And finally – the Brontes! Did you look at the play about them on tv? I was too tired with my cold to sit up: so I went to bed and read about this oddest and most fascinating of families. The smell I always remember in their connection is in that awful detail of the dying Emily trying to dress her hair on the sofa. The comb fell from her nerveless fingers and smouldered on the hearth: the dreadful smell of burning horn filled the Parsonage. Then Charlotte ran up the moors to fetch some flowery bells of heather: but it was all too late…..

The Guardian described this as a “…chronicle….(of)… the extraordinary challenges faced by ordinary people” – which we did find a bit comical. Those Brontes were very far from ordinary, I think.

Here’s hoping YOUR experience of 2017 has been so far extraordinarily good and – of course – sweetly scented.

* Ben McIntyre The Times 29/12/16

¤ Nick Clegg’s great great aunt. Get out your Google Images and wonder at the human gene pool: there is such a likeness between the two.

¤¤ Homer and “the wine-dark sea”; and the poet neither possessing nor needing a word to denote “blue”…