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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It isn’t raining rain, you know – It’s reigning violets!

A little while back I wrote to you about violets and promised a second look to examine their political and historic significance. Now that they have withered from the hedgerows let’s examine their eternal symbolism.

There are numerous perfumes on the market today which are associated with Napoleon Bonaparte and his family. Although I was much enthralled by the Emperor when doing my History A levels, I’ve since found the gilt has fallen off the gingerbread: I got extra marks once from a no doubt very bored teacher for remarking in an essay that Bonaparte cheated at cards and kept diamonds sewn in the lining of his coach in case of the need for hasty flight.
“Pourvu que ca dure”, Letizia Buonaparte, “Mme Mere”, kept kibbitzing and krechtzing in her Ajaccio market accent, and no doubt it got her son down and unnerved him. Now my attitude is something between the opinions of his two wives. Josephine’s “Bonaparte est bon a rien” and bouncy Marie Louise’s ingenuous remark on their first meeting, “you’re better looking than your portraits!”

Napoleon took the violet as one of his symbols along with the Imperial Bees and Eagles; but a coded emblem this time, a ciphered encouragement to Bonapartists during his first exile on Elba. The Little Corporal was dubbed “Caporal Violette”, his supporter wore sprigs of the flower and whispered round the double password, “Aimez vous la violette?” “Elle revient le printemps..” And of course he did come back with the violets in the spring of 1815, riddled with the haemorrhoids which lost him Waterloo. When they brought the news to the Empress Marie Louise, the messengers found her more interested in a new pair of shoes than the massacre in Belgium which kept the denture market supplied with the teeth of the fallen for decades to come.

But why the violet? Maybe because a drawing of a stylised flower bears a resemblance to an Imperial Bee, which in turn some said was an inverted Royalist fleurs de lys. Was there an irony to it? The tiny apparently modest violet, clad in imperial purple, who turns out to be the universal conqueror . You can’t help wondering if somewhere there is not a tenuous cross-Channel link with the colloquialism “coming up smelling of violets”. Bonaparte women found the symbolism handy for personal adornment. The botanising Josephine loved violets; after the fall of the Empire Marie Louise propagated them in her Duchy of Parma. Winterhalter’s group portrait of Eugenie, Empress of Napoleon 3rd ( Bonaparte’s nephew and keeper of the flame) shows her in a crinoline in the colours of white and purple violets with a posy of the flowers in her hand, the central focus of the painting.

Maybe Bonaparte was saluting the glory of Ancient Greece in his choice. Violets sprang from the blood of the warrior Ajax; the sweat of Alexander was said to be sweet-smelling as violets; and Athens, the Queen of Greece, was the Violet – Crowned City, thanks to a word-play on the name of her legendary king Ion (“a violet”).

Whether violet-scented or not, Napoleon was a prodigious user of cologne, splashing it around in lieu of a good wash I’m inclined to think, since he certainly preferred his women on the grubby side. (Here Josephine failed him, changing her linen four times a day.) Both 4711 and Roger + Gallet claim a connection; at Les Senteurs we have modern niche perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato’s Eau de Gloire an evocation of the Emperor’s native Corsica. Its pendant portrait is Eau Suave, a souvenir of Josephine’s childhood tropical gardens on Martinique, and the Malmaison Redoute roses of her maturity. Creed of course owed a great debt to the patronage of the Empress Eugenie in the 1850’s and 60’s, though their stupendous oriental violet fragrance Love in Black, had to wait until the 21st century to be born.

Though the most poignant story of all concerning the Bonapartes and flowers is told of not a violet but a tulip. In extreme old age, just after the Great War, the widowed Eugenie revisited Paris and walked in the gardens of her former home, the Tuileries: the palace was long gone, burned fifty years before, but she reached over a railing to pick a tulip only to be checked by an officious park-keeper who failed to recognise his former Empress. “Mme, it is forbidden to pick the flowers”.