It would seem that at long last, smell, the ‘Cinderella’ sense, is achieving recognition. Of the five senses, Smell is the only one that connects directly to the brain. It has even been proved that unborn babies can smell their mother’s perfume whilst still in the womb.
Eager to prove or disprove this theory, experiments were carried out [ah oui? when and where, Maman?] by submerging a volunteer in simulated amniotic fluid: she couldn’t breathe, but she could smell.
Patients have been known to have been brought out of coma by smell. When one remembers that smell is the first sense one experiences, not touch, sight, sound or taste, but smell, this should not be surprising.
It has been called the memory sense; le sens de souvenir.
“Strange how potent cheap music can be” mused Nöel Coward, self-mockingly, in Private Lives, pin-pointing so accurately a previously unacknowledged truth. For where great music spans centuries, belonging to none in particular, and as loved as another, being timeless, cheap music belongs only to the time it was written and is capable of conjuring up that particular time ever after.
“I danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales”, “ A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, “We’ll Meet Again”, “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, “The Way We Were”, and thousands more, can whirl one back in a split second to a particular time, a particular place, and a particular person.
Only one other thing has that power: smell.
Like music, the great smells belong to no time in particular: freshly baked bread, bacon in a pan, toast, coffee, new-mown grass, linen off a washing line, cigar-smoke, haberdasher’s shops with bales of clothe and reels of cotton, stationers with paper and pencils, new books and glossy magazines, chocolate shops and florists, “unforgettable, unforgotten river smells”, the smell of a freshly-bathed baby, and above all - the sea, are classic smells.
Perfume, manufactured and sold in little glass bottles, intended to be used and then thrown away, take the place of ‘cheap music’ and prove the memories.
Le sens de souvenir refers to perfume, and rightly so, for in a fraction of a second one can be transported back in time to a place, a time, and a person. A loved friend, or a hated experience, with one whiff of a long forgotten scent.
The novelist Jean Rhys wrote a great deal about hard-up heroines down on their luck before the first world war.
Nowhere to live, unless someone else paid the rent, nothing to eat unless someone else paid the bill. Jobs as shop assistants or milliners, for which competition was fierce. If you couldn’t find a job in a shop, you tried to get into service. If you couldn’t do that, you went on the streets.
Her heroines spend a lot of time gazing longingly into shop windows, convinced that if only they could afford a particular outfit (usually a suit) everything would be different and their lives would change.
It wouldn’t change a thing of course. The same person would be wearing that suit until it wore out, trying to ring the changes with a scarf or a nosegay, and even if she found a different feather for her hat, her shoes would still be down-at-heel.
Perfume, however, was different. It came a good deal cheaper than a suit, and made rather more exciting promises, furthermore, perfume did not wear out.
You might not live like Gaby Delys, or Sarah Bernhardt, you might not dress like Theda Bara, but for a few francs, you could buy a magic potion in a little glass bottle and pretend that you did.
A dab behind the ears, on the wrists, and suddenly you were glamorous.
Perfume brought escape to people imprisoned by circumstance.
With the cinema in its infancy and television a mere twinkle in technology’s eye, tuppenny novelettes and cheap scent were the purveyors of dreams to the section of society who most needed to dream.
Magic carpet ride... guaranteed. The more dead-end the occupation, the more exotic the scent worn.
A parlour-maid who spent a shilling or two at Madame Girard’s at 182 Regent Street bought more than a coarse glass bottle promising Nirvana, she bought dreams of escape. Compared to a penny novelette, a bottle of cheap scent with a garishly coloured label was a shocking extravagance, hoarded for special occasions. Such occasions were rather thin on the ground for parlour-maids in those days; a trip to the Music Hall with her young man was just about the peak, and that happened, at most, maybe once a month. Perhaps that is why so many of these endearingly vulgar bottles survive – because they were so prized.
Indeed, we would probably do well to remember today that every single bottle we find today and gaze upon with incredulity, was once the precious possession of a sister-under-the-skin. Only the very poor bought the scents of Araby: Shem el Nessim, Phŭl Nana, and Hasu No Hana. The better-fleeced patronised Rigaud, Houbigant, Guerlain and Atkinson.
These more leisured ladies with secure and interesting lives could afford to wear scents with innocent names like Le Jardin de Mon Curé, Violettes à Deux Sous, À Travers Champs, and Quand Vient l’Été?
Something a lot stronger was needed to waft a midinette out of a sweatshop and into the arms of a dark-eyed Sheikh: Premier Oui, Il Pleut des Baisers, Fille du Roi de Chîne, or Parles-lui de Moi?
For a Jean Rhys heroine, such a scent might attract the man who would pay for the meal, and pay for the room. Who knows? He might even buy the suit.