If there was ever an academic monograph that called for the inclusion of an accompanying ‘scratch and sniff’ card then Catherine Maxwell’s Scents and Sensibility: Perfume in Victorian Literary Culture is surely it. From Elizabeth Gaskell’s love of the delicate fragrance of ‘sweet woodruff’, to Oscar Wilde’s preference for a putrid-sweet hint of indole, to Virginia Woolf’s avowed dislike of ‘cheap’ perfumes, Maxwell’s study vibrantly illuminates the important significance of the olfactory sense in Victorian literature and culture. Combining an impressive grasp of the mechanics of nineteenth-century perfume production and marketing with a close attention to telling aspects of textual and biographical detail, Maxwell’s study ranges confidently from its central focus on fin-de-siècle literature – Walter Pater, Michael Field, Arthur Symons – to encompass the influence of earlier figures such as Francis Bacon and Percy Shelley on Victorian literary accounts of olfaction, before proceeding to chart the response of canonical Modernists such as T. S. Eliot to the ‘insistent sweet perfume’ of English decadent literature. Amongst the most impressive aspects of Maxwell’s work is the deftness with which it traces the emergence of the figure of the ‘olfactif’– an individual characterized by the delicacy of their sensitivity to smell – in late nineteenth-century culture. The important significance of scent in the aestheticism of Algernon Swinburne, Pater and Wilde is presented partly as a response to the perfumed provocations of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857). But Maxwell’s exemplary attention to the precise details of these figures’ olfactory preferences also allows for significant distinctions to emerge. Swinburne’s fondness for the smell of fresh English sea breezes, for example, presents a challenge to the critical commonplace that he is an avowed decadent captivated by the heavy fragrances of all that is exotic and artificial. Close attention to the significance of scent in Pater’s works reveals a similar commitment to ‘sweet’, ‘fresh’ and ‘delicate’ fragrances far removed from the hot-house scents most characteristic of French Romanticism. Such scents function, for Pater, as a beneficent vehicle for diffusing those spiritual values of beauty that he associates with the Renaissance. A particular focus of Maxwell’s discussion is tracing the networks of influence between literary writers, exploring the associations of flowers and their scents established through a shared literary tradition. To this end, two of her chapters offer specific case studies of the rich cultural resonances that accrue to particularly significant flowers: the violet and the tuberose. Maxwell’s exploration of the literary ‘scent memories’ of the violet across nineteenth-century poetry notes, in particular, this flower’s associations with memory, music and elegiac commemoration. For writers such as Tennyson, Wilde and William Wetmore Story, the violet functions a shared emblem of ‘the memory of dead romances’. A more complex line of literary inheritance can be traced variously from Shakespeare and Francis Bacon, to Keats and Shelley, and on to Michael Field, in which the violet – associated with the figure of Orpheus – becomes a symbol for the power of music. More interesting, perhaps, is the violet’s associations with processes of regeneration: Pater’s essay on Sir Thomas Browne (1886), for example, envisions ‘a violet, turning to freshness, and smelling sweet again, out of its ashes’. Far from a decadent fleur du mal, the violet, in this respect, acts to reverse those processes of loss, decay and disintegration that so often preoccupy writers of the fin de siècle. Maxwell’s exploration of the associations of the tuberose in decadent poetry is similarly adept in close attention to historical and textual detail. Close readings of texts by Marc André Raffalovich, A. Mary F. Robinson, and Theodore Wratislaw reveal the complexities of this scent’s associations with voluptuousness, criminality, and death. Looking beyond her late-Victorian focus, Maxwell convincingly argues for the lasting influence of such decadent associations on the marketing of tuberose perfumes today. Part of the pleasure of Maxwell’s work lies in its capacity to surprise. Her study encompasses not only the domains of perfumes and floral scents, but also investigates the fascination of writers such as John Addington Symonds and Lafcadio Hearn with the smell of the human body. The preoccupation of Symonds’s writings with the scent of young men’s bodies is deftly situated in the context of nineteenth-century sexology and in relation to Symonds’s delight in the sensuousness of both Whitman’s poetry and Classical literature. This allows for the articulation of a specifically queer sub-culture of olfactory pleasure. Equally effective is Maxwell’s exploration of ideas of scent, femininity and the female body in Hearn’s work. Drawing attention to Hearn’s fascination with the distinctive smells of Japanese and Creole cultures, Maxwell’s work convincingly makes the case for a cosmopolitan olfactory aestheticism formed through encounters with non-Western subjects. The impressive breadth of research that underpins Maxwell’s study is most evident in her discussion of the ‘fragrant imagination’ that inspires the poetry of Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper (who took as their pseudonym ‘Michael Field’). Maxwell is the first scholar to draw extensively upon these women’s private diaries, skilfully demonstrating how they transformed such material into poetry that utilized the language of perfume to express their mutual love. The rich web of associations that attach to flowers and scent in their verse is expertly situated in the broader context of their close personal relationships with fellow olfactifs, the artist Charles Ricketts and art critic Bernard Berenson. Once again, Maxwell goes beyond those floral scents that may at first seem most typical of such fin-de-siècle verse to consider also the significance of those fragrant ‘hints’ of ‘tobacco, leather, brass’ that also feature in Field’s verse. Maxwell’s attention to the role played by perfume in decadent self-fashioning pays its richest dividends in her study of Oscar Wilde’s and Arthur Symons’s cultivation of the dandy persona, a figure here notable for his refined olfactory sensibility and love of synthetic, non-natural scents. Drawing upon less well-known texts, such as the homoerotic pornographic novel Teleny (1893), allows Maxwell to elucidate the manner in which a heightened sensitivity to smell (and a ‘scented’ literary style) become associated with consciously perverse desires. Maxwell is alert also to the significance of those sweeter odours that pervade Wilde’s prison writings, which use Biblical imagery of perfume and scent to invoke the promise of redemption. The centrality of artifice in Symons’s verse comes vividly into focus in Maxwell’s account of the cultural resonances of three scents to which he returns repeatedly in his verse: patchouli (a strong woody fragrance, often associated with ‘loose women’); white heliotrope (a vanilla-sweet, almond scent); and peau d’espagne (a leather fragrance). Perfume also emerges in Symons’s verse as an emblem both of the endurance of personal memory and of the force of lyric poetry itself. Here, an object impregnated with scent becomes a recurrent figure for a mood or sensibility that is sustained against the encroachment of time. The final section of Scents and Sensibility extends beyond fin-de-siècle literature to consider the significance of perfume in the life and works of Virginia Woolf and Compton Mackenzie. For Maxwell, Woolf’s often puritanical condemnation of other women’s use of scent – not least her complaint that Katherine Mansfield ‘stinks like a . . . civet cat’ – reflects not only her much-discussed sense of class superiority, but also a desire to distance herself from the inheritance of a stuffy, perfumed Victorianism. In Mackenzie’s works, by contrast, a fascination with scent testifies to his much greater enthusiasm for the literature of aestheticism and decadence. Maxwell makes a convincing case for Mackenzie’s Sinister Street (1913–14) as an ‘olfactory autobiography’, charting the central significance of different scents to the protagonist’s self-development: the familial comfort of a mother’s floral perfume; a religious awakening associated with the smell of incense; the lure of the homoerotic in a Wildean dandy’s ‘scented house’. In Carnival (1912), Mackenzie utilizes a vivid language of fragrance and smell to capture the vibrant social world of a ‘ballet girl’ in London’s theatre scene. Maxwell’s reading traces in detail the manner in which olfactory memories and impressions become central to the formation of class and social identity for Mackenzie’s protagonist. Maxwell’s work is a fine example of how to combine close attention to neglected aspects of cultural history and careful attention to biographical detail in a manner that facilitates illuminating and surprising readings of both familiar and unfamiliar literary texts. Occasionally, such evident enthusiasm for historical detail distracts from the thrust of the broader argument: while undoubtedly interesting, digressions on Wilde’s interest in Mary Magdalene, or the disputed origins of eau de cologne do not always serve to advance the central analysis of the literature under discussion. In a work that juggles such an impressive array of sources, it is perhaps inevitable that there are moments of repetition – we read a passage from Lafcadio Hearn’s ‘The Physiology of Smells’ (1880), for instance, twice in one chapter. Such minor questions aside, the ambition of Maxwell’s work ensures that it will be of interest not just to those working on fin-de-siècle literature and culture, but also to those engaged with the afterlives of Romanticism and the relationship between decadence and English literary Modernism. Her approach will invite new lines of enquiry for those engaged with neo-Victorian studies, Victorian scientific theories of sensory perception, and those interested in the significance of the senses in literature and culture more broadly. Here, especially, Maxwell makes an overdue addition to the growing fascination in literary studies with senses beyond the visual, where the cultural significance of scent and smell have so often been overlooked. © 2018 Leeds Trinity University 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)
Journal of Victorian Culture – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 20, 2018
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