The flipside of the Victorians’ stern moral codes is their fixation with the senses. A cursory look into the landscape of Victorian studies suggests that while scholarship on touch, sight, hearing, and (to a lesser extent) taste, proliferates, the sense of smell has not been given the attention it deserves. Expanding the purview of sensory studies and marking a shift from the themes of vision and sight of her two previous monographs, The Female Sublime (2001) and Second Sight (2008), Catherine Maxwell’s Scents and Sensibility is a potent and intoxicating journey into the marvellous literary world of scent and perfume, from the tonic, iodic smells of the sea to the heady odours of the hothouse, from the rancid to the redolent. In a series of careful and erudite readings of a plethora of poems and prose texts, Maxwell stresses the significance of scent as a catalyst in getting new insights into the literary culture of Victorian aestheticism and decadence. In an energetic vortex of scholarship that blends floriography, symbology, mythology, and perfume chemistry, Scents and Sensibility reveals ‘perfume’s connection with imaginative influence, memory, and personal identity’, yet identifies what Maxwell calls ‘perfumed style’ (p. 5). Maxwell introduces and develops types of the late-Victorian connoisseur that are largely underexplored: the olfactif and the flaireur (on a par with the dandy and the flâneur). Key Paris- and London-based perfumers, Pierre Francois Lubin, G. W. Septimus Piesse, and Eugène Rimmel—the last two are authors of The Art of Perfumery (1855) and The Book of Perfumes (1865), respectively—provide historical context. Maxwell emphasizes the various uses of effeminate ‘floral’ scents and the more sexually suggestive and indecorous ‘animalic’ scents (such as musk and civet). This dichotomy is not stiff, as she demonstrates; a more socially agreeable scent such as the violet, for example, could be perversely made to evoke a decadent atmosphere. The overall structure and chapter division of Scents and Sensibility is itself like a sophisticated and lasting perfume, an odoriferous bouquet, unravelling from the ‘Top Notes’ of the contextual Chapter 1 to the base notes of the penultimate chapter on Decadent artificiality, to the ‘Sillage’, or lingering trail, of the last chapter on Modernism. Maxwell’s study centres on less known but gifted writers alongside more familiar ones, often in potent juxtapositions; the first chapter considers such scent-hounds as Edmund Gosse, Victoria Cross, and T. S. Eliot. Chapter 2 meditates on the versatility of the violet as the quintessential flower of memory and literary influence. Maxwell discusses the influence of Shelley and his use of violet in communicating the ‘unique perfume of a poem’ (p. 76). The chapter culminates with a superb reading of Katharine Bradley’s sonnet ‘A Violet Bank’. Continuing with the floral theme and the ‘influence-as-perfume’ trope (p. 128), Chapter 3 investigates Swinburne’s ‘clean, fresh and airy, often astringent scents that sting and enliven’ (p. 100) and Pater’s adaptation of ‘Swinburne’s scented legacy’ into a ‘more nuanced and studied appreciation of critical olfaction’ (p. 85). As Maxwell contends in a two-part argument, Pater is a flaireur who sublimates Swinburne’s robust bouquets and channels them into a ‘scented atmosphere’ (p. 119). The reading of The Renaissance (1873) with its ‘sweet’ aroma (p. 124) is quite enriching. Chapter 4 mirrors the preceding chapter. The focus is on Uranian aesthete John Addington Symonds and globetrotter Lafcadio Hearn, cosmopolitans who represent the scent of the body from homoerotic and heterosexual perspectives, respectively. Maxwell notes the natural fragrances of Walt Whitman in his influence on Symonds. Her discussion of Hearn’s ‘odor di femina’, ‘an essence of moral femininity that emanates like a perfume’ (p. 169), and ‘parfum de jeunesse’, as well as the in-depth reading of ‘The Tale of a Fan’, is captivating and original. In Chapter 5 the tuberose emerges as more sensual and carnal than the decadent orchid. It is a flower that evokes artificiality by mimicking animalic scents. By examining ‘tuberose’ poems by Marc-André Raffalovich, Mary Robinson, and Theodore Wratislaw, Maxwell here rewrites and revises the canon of decadent flowers. Chapter 6 examines the work of ‘Michael Field’ through their platonic infatuations and the way they used floral scents to nourish the soul and the body. The introduction of the previously unpublished poem ‘On Opening a box of flowers from the Riviera’ is a special treat. The ‘heart notes’ of the chapter, so to speak, consist of an examination of Wild Honey from Various Thyme (1908) and the inspiring role of eclectic magazine editor, painter, and illustrator Charles Ricketts. The chapter’s ‘base notes’ are those of the rose; Maxwell’s biographical and comparative reading of the poem ‘The Grand Mogul’ with its whiff of Blake is a tour de force. The poem, Maxwell writes, ‘is about the romantic poetic imagination […] something that is strongest and more characteristically itself at the very moment when it is about to die’ (p. 236). With Oscar Wilde and Arthur Symons in Chapter 7, Maxwell ‘nose’-dives into the field of decadence proper. Apart from ‘metaphors for influence’ scent and perfume in Dorian Gray are ‘markers of style and sexuality’ (p. 245). Discussion of the anonymous pornographic narrative Teleny, or, The Reverse of the Medal (1893) (Wilde is a presumed co-author) is a nice surprise. By examining anecdotal evidence, Maxwell emphasizes Wilde’s use of the idiom of flowers in his work and his life; she unlocks Wilde’s decadent formula of scent in her incisive analysis of his description of white lilac as ‘insidious and delightful’. The chapter shifts to Wilde’s post-1895 period in a perceptive analysis of Christ and Mary Magdalen as ‘Christ’s perfume-bearer’; here Maxwell champions a subtler use of perfume associated with complex Biblical symbolism and a lachrymose aestheticism. Symons’s obsession with patchouli, heliotrope, and Peau d’Espagne could not be absent from the palette of decadent perfume. Symons’s synthetic perfumes, Maxwell argues, are powerful mnemonic triggers, evoking the Paterian ‘moment’ and anticipating Proust. She illustrates the metaphor of perfume as legacy and influence admirably in her detailed examination of a lyric from Symons’s Lesbia and Other Poems (1920). The last chapter delves into Woolf’s sanitized odourlessness, contrasted with Katherine Mansfield’s fragrant aesthetics, and Woolf’s experiment with the olfactory in Flush (1933). By looking at Compton Mackenzie as an ‘aromancer’, Maxwell considers his novels Carnival (1912) and Sinister Street (1913–1914) as biographical scent trails that nod to the 1890s and encode human experience in the language of aromas. Maxwell is a master of the catalogue; she deploys perfume-related terms in a delightful, razor-sharp, yet impressionistic manner. Her readings are energized by etymological associations, such as influence/‘a flowing into’ (p. 127), chalice/calyx (p. 211), violet/viola, and ‘anthology’ as collection of flowers (anthoi) (p. 76). Black-and-white figures and colour plates of almanacs, catalogues, advertisements, photographs, and paintings grace the volume. Scents and Sensibility opens a crack into the world of scent as a new lingo. It is a timely and spectacularly original contribution to the fields of Victorian culture, aestheticism and decadence, sensory studies, and studies of influence. It will be indispensable to students and scholars of Victorian, Fin-de-siècle and Modernist studies, as well as enthusiasts of fashion and perfume. If Huysmans’s À rebours (1884) is a perfumed novel, Scents and Sensibility is the first perfumed monograph, a study that harbours a number of surprise ingredients that make it irresistible. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 16, 2018
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