Good news this week for the publishing trade. The sale of printed books is on the rise once more. I saw only one electronic ‘Kindle’-book up and running on the London/Leicester express last Friday night – and believe me I’d schlepped the length of the train hunting for a seat. Which I found.
I think it’s what we always knew. The redolence of print, new pages, different types of paper, glossy covers and wrappers is an integral part of the pleasure of reading. Then, as you get into a book, it absorbs your own natural oils and DNA molecules: it becomes a part of your persona. ‘L.W. – his book’ as the traditional proprietorial inscription used to read. The volume gradually is saturated with the scent of the reader: her perfume, his embrocation, her food, his hair gel. My mother’s paperbacks were semi-transparent with smears of Nivea and Ambre Solaire. The pages looked like so many medieval windows: sheets of paper soaked in oil. And remember Emily Bronte teaching herself German as she rolled out the pastry? With the grammar propped up against the flour crock and Keeper under the table, hoping for crumbs. The apocryphal tale of finding a dried rasher of bacon (sometimes a kipper) used as a bookmark is told by many librarians.
Like Jean Harlow, I was reading a book the other day¤. It’s the new biography¤¤ of the great Irish novelist Molly Keane, by her daughter Sally Phipps. Keane is probably best remembered for her late “comeback” novel ‘Good Behaviour’ (1981) which starts with an (intentionally) nauseating description of a dish of “quenelles in a cream sauce ……there was just a hint of bay leaf and black pepper, not a breath of the rabbit foundation”. In fact the baby rabbit mousse proves the finish of the bed-ridden old lady to whom it is force fed:
“The smell – I’m – ”
And that’s the end of Mrs St Clair.
The entire suite of Molly Keane’s novels from 1928 to 1989 are required reading – and more than once over. The books are beautiful, acute, very funny indeed and sometimes horribly sad – you cry ALL the time for one reason or another. Keane is marvellous on food (she adored cooking, finding it not only mouth-watering but therapeutic and fulfilling); and she is unparalleled in her awareness of smells. The first sentence of ‘Good Behaviour’ is all about things olfactory – both emotional and culinary:
‘Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt…’
For the ‘miasma’ in that seaside Irish house is entirely sinister.
The books are suffused in sensory awareness; especially of colour and of smell. Flowers, clothes, the seasons, perfume, fur, pubs, horses, gardens, food, violet sachets, hair, smoke; the hunting field and the bedroom. Ms Phipps has inherited her mother’s nose – she writes of a butler’s pantry which “smelt rather deliciously of stale coffee grounds and pink silver powder”. She describes an aunt advising Molly before a hunt ball – ‘ “don’t accept presents of scent my darling and don’t talk to any strange men” ‘.
Of course then, back in the 1920’s, a girl who accepted a gift of anything wearable from a gentleman was hopelessly compromised. ‘The coat of shame’ wrote Lady Diana Cooper. And taking perfume from a man was tantamount to wearing
his engagement ring – or admitting you were his mistress. Hence the Mae West
riposte, which today sounds rather vague and harmless:
– “You always have such swell things! How do you do it on your salary?”
– “It’s a gift, honey. It’s a gift.”
I love it when you find one of your own tricks being practised in a book. Jasper throws “bay leaves onto the low ring of the Aga so that the smoke from their curling blackened leaves might quell other smells” ¤¤¤. When I first worked and cooked with an Aga I was fascinated by its secondary use as an altar to the Lares and Penates. Like Vesta’s Flame, it burned perpetually. One could immolate herbs and spices on it at any time, like Pamela Brown ladling the incense into the brazier in Liz Taylor’s ‘Cleopatra’. And the Lady of the Aga used to polish the stove with her own hand cream, lanolin-enriched, which of course lent a very heady redolence to the kitchen and back sculleries.
I was fascinated by Molly Keane’s biography and it is beautifully done. However, it upset me in the way that only biography sometimes can; in this case, I can’t tell quite why. Brian Master’s book about Marie Corelli had the same effect on me, decades ago. Mrs Keane lost her husband early in very tragic circumstances; but she led a long and in many ways blessed life. She was a perfectionist and that is a state that always frets me because I guess I am one myself. However, I’m so despairing of achieving any sort of perfection that I often give up before I try. Maybe the strong sense of smell that dominates Ms Phipps’s book panics me in some primeval animal way, as I am an individual who also lives through scents and odours and the complicated sensations they arouse. Could that be so? Having worked so long with perfume, I am fully aware of its strange and uncanny powers. However, I’m still prepared to be surprised and shocked by their manifestations!
¤ “reading a book?” gasps Marie Dressler, doing the double-take to end all: DINNER AT EIGHT (1933).
¤¤ ‘Molly Keane: a life’ by Sally Phipps, 2017
¤¤¤ ‘Time after Time’ 1983