Well, my plans to get my blog back on track were derailed – by myself and child number 2 catching the SARS-CoV-2 virus. What was (in the event) a minor misfortune, at least in our case, was overlaid by an enormous amount of luck – that I experienced it as a bad cold rather than anything serious, that I am ‘double jabbed’, that whilst well enough to work, I was able to do so from home for an understanding employer… Covid has, however, taken away my sense of smell and taste – I hope, I trust, temporarily. That is, I am experiencing ansomia and ageusia. It’s my observation these are just two of the words Covid has added to the daily dictionary – ones most of us, outside the medical world, rarely would use pre pandemic.
An article in The New York Times back in January this year suggested that loss of smell can be related to “an inability to feel pleasure, as well as a strange sense of detachment and isolation,” quoting Dr. Sandeep Robert Datta, an associate professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, who noted that “Memories and emotions are intricately tied to smell, and the olfactory system plays an important though largely unrecognized role in emotional well-being.”
There we go. Smells are evocative; they take you straight back to a particular time and place. We have an entire menu or inventory of memories in store ready to be triggered by smell, what Charles Baudelaire described in his collection Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) as a ‘Flask’, which is to say un flacon, one of various scents combined into a perfume: “…poking through a house, in closets shut for years / Full of the scent of time – acrid, musky, dank / One comes, perhaps, upon a flask of memories / In whose escaping scent a soul returns to life.”
And so yes, smells absolutely have a role in sensory writing, to describe a scene, a person, a place, to bring a concept to life in the mind of the reader. For better (aroma, fragrance, scent…) or for worse (stench, stink, whiff, pong, reek…)
In her article The Smell of Class: British novels of the 1860s, Janice Carlisle even notes how Victorian novelists ‘represent smells according to a “code”’ with smells such as roses and fine wax candles representing upper classes, odours such as cheap tallow candles the poorer classes.
A little later in his Edwardian novel The Man of Property (first in the Forsyte Saga), John Galsworthy described the avaricious Soames descending the stairs ‘where was always that rather pleasant smell of camphor and port wine, and house where draughts are not permitted.’ The fragrance of the secure, wealthy house.
In contrast, this class aspect also puts me in mind of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. Not fiction, but it has a novelist’s pen, and descriptions of smells were common as he investigated the miserable living conditions of the 1930s poor in northern England. Without the luxuries of scents, fine wines, even fresh water. In one working man’s lodgings, as Orwell wakes up, “the room stank like a ferret’s cage. You did not notice it when you got up, but if you went out of the room and came back, the smell hit you in the face with a smack.”
Turning to lives of genteel poverty, in her novel The Rosemary Tree, Elizabeth Goudge describes the vicarage where resides vicar John Wentworth, wife Daphne, and their family, ‘a dreary flagged stoned place where an aroma of mice fought daily with a smell of cabbage and fish. However much Daphne opened the window she could never get rid of the smells, for the damp of the kitchen imprisoned them.’ It is smell more than sight or sound that is used to describe the neglected, crumbling, and stifling atmosphere of the place. If you’ve ever lived in an old house, particularly one that has periodically hosted our murine friends, you can smell the mouse pee, the foetid sweetness of their nests.
Angela Carter’s writing is highly sensual. The smells she chose could be unpleasant – the smell of urine in a slum street, for instance, but are more often overpoweringly opulent, sometimes rotting – or designed to disguise decay, at least. Like the ‘rich, thick, wild scent’ with which the Beast anointed himself in her re-telling of Beauty and The Beast, or repeated reference to the heavy, heady ‘funereal’ scent of lilies in The Bloody Chamber.
It’s not all roses. These are everyday smells of houses, people, humanity. But right now I’d be grateful to pick up almost any smell once again.