Perfume on the Page in Nineteenth-Century France explores literature, medicine, fashion, and social practices during the rise of modern French perfume culture. Read the full Q&A by author Cheryl Krueger here:
1. Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?
This project crept up on me. I have always enjoyed discovering, smelling, and talking about perfume, yet I kept my fascination with fragrance and French literature in separate compartments. I was sampling scents and reading books on perfume as a guilty pleasure when at some point, between the pages of Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant, Stamelman’s Perfume, and Turin and Sanchez’s Perfumes: The Guide, I was struck by a paradox that I simply had to explore. Across time and disciplines, scholars have discussed the weak connection between odours and language; yet people find significance, pleasure, even entertainment in reading and writing about smells. French fiction, particularly fiction of the nineteenth century, is both celebrated and infamous for its evocation of odours. And today, perfume lovers express their connection to fragrance via written vignettes published in books and on websites. Though words have been seen as insufficient for communicating about smells and the experience of olfaction, they in fact provide a rich and accessible means of expression for such sensorial phenomena. I wondered if the nineteenth-century writers of smell – poets, novelists, medical doctors, perfumers – grappled with the perceived problem of word-odour correlations.
2. What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
Three main challenges come to mind. The first has to do with the elusive experience of smelling the perfumes I mention. I wanted readers to know how the fragrant materials evoked in French novels smelled, and how those scents would have been interpreted or read at the time. That means I had to seek out the fragrances myself. The olfactory fieldwork was a pleasure, though it often served as a reminder of the volatile nature of perfume. Blended fragrances of the era do not keep, and reformulation is tricky because some perfumers’ recipes list loosely dosed and defined mixtures. Furthermore, not all perfumers used the same formulae for blends like Maréchale, chypre,or frangipane. Some classic ingredients are now restricted, so it is unlikely we have smelled them in any recently released perfume, and certainly not at their former intensity. The Osmothèque scent archive in Versailles offers fresh, accurate creations of historic perfumes, but I still cannot experience how those scents would have developed, shifted, mingled, or lingered when applied to seldom-washed hair, a paper flower corsage, or a silk dress; worn inside a stuffy theatre, or on the bustling streets of Paris.
The second challenge involved staying true to a literary perspective when discussing novels and poems. I wanted to evoke the scents while going beyond simply providing a sort of olfactory hypergloss of literary texts (although I am certainly not opposed to a scratch-and-sniff companion to the book!). While I point out how works of fiction and poetry sometimes depict daily perfuming practices, I am interested in showing that literary texts offer something more dynamic than a reflection of their cultural context. I focus on why the fragrances matter, what they convey about a writer’s individual style and poetics, and how works of fiction coevolved with and contributed to the developing history of perfume in France.
The third challenge was practical and lexical: certain words had to be in constant rotation (fragrance, perfume, scent). I was forever trying, and often failing, to avoid repetition.
3. Tell us about the research process for this book. Was there something in your research that surprised you?
The process was unlike that of other books I’ve written, in that it required a greater variety of primary and secondary sources: perfumers’ manuals and trade magazines, medical treatises, manuscripts, and scholarly studies in a range of fields, from literary criticism, to cultural history, to neuroscience. My fieldwork included fragrance workshops and conversations with perfumers. I also became attuned to aromas basically everywhere I encountered them. I compare the interaction between the book’s three major threads of inquiry – language, women, and perfume materials – to perfumery’s classic, three-part fragrance pyramids. Language and words are like a perfume’s head notes: the first thing you experience when reading or communicating about perfume. Women (like the heart notes of fragrance blend) are at the core of the study, the heart and soul, the character. The base notes (the fragrant materials themselves) may not be the star of the show, but they anchor all the rest. Each of these components led to discoveries during the research process. While I had several critical editions of J.-K. Huysmans’s À rebours at my fingertips, I asked to consult his hand-written manuscript at the BnF just so that I could touch it, and, yes, smell it. Leafing through the pages, I was thrilled to find marginal notes that suggested Huysmans gave a great deal of attention to expanding or varying his lexicon of smells and the olfactory experience. (I provide a picture of these marginal notes on page 148 in the book). As for women, it is obvious they were important to the expansion of perfume culture in the nineteenth century because so much advertising was pitched to them. But I hadn’t anticipated the range of discourse of the era that allied women’s perfume use with substance abuse, particularly alcohol and morphine. When I learned that the lance-parfum Rodo (a perfume launcher depicted on the book’s cover) contained ethyl chloride, I better understood how rumours of perfume abuse circulated. Finally, I was surprised to discover that there was as much confusion in the nineteenth century as today about the origin and naming of certain perfume materials (for example, frangipane, chypre, and ambergris).
4. What was your experience working with the editor/editors of this book?
I was impressed with how quickly Mark Thompson sent the manuscript to expert peer reviewers. Once the book was in production, I was in contact with Deborah Kopka almost every day. Her patience, attention, and terrific communication style were crucial to completion of the book.
5. What do you hope readers will take away from reading Perfume on the Page in Nineteenth-Century France?
I hope that scholars will be inspired to explore some of the scent trails I recognized but could not pursue because they led too far from the space of my study. There are many histories of nineteenth-century perfumery that rely on evidence from literary texts, but fewer studies of the era’s literature that focus on fragrance and olfaction. I look forward to new paths of inquiry that bring literature and cultural history together with attention to the senses.
Overall, I hope readers will approach works of fiction with renewed awareness of and curiosity about how they sense what they read. Attention to fragrance opens understanding of texts we thought we already knew and enhances our connection to those texts. Our personal, emotional, intellectual, and sensorial relationships to reading are interdependent. Because there is something innately intimate about odour and olfaction, we bring ourselves closer to the experience of others, past and present, and we engage both the mind and body when we foster a sensorial connection to reading.