Perfumes for a Writer

coletteMaybe it all began with Baudelaire, or Zola, or Maupassant, or Huysmans;  certainly it carries over into the work of Proust, but arguably it was Colette who wrote about perfume with the greatest delicacy and exactitude of all French writers.

If perfume was entering artistic culture at the turn of the 19th century, then it was authors of her generation who helped usher it in.  The human response, simple but profound, to the ordinary stimulus of scent, was something Colette with her instincts, sensitive as feelers, understood.  For her, the mystery of this world was visual, palpable, smell-able.

“I recall,” she writes in Flora and Pomona about visiting a greenhouse at a Parisian flower show, “an extraordinary prodigality of irises, in May…thousands and thousands of iris, a clump of azure approaching a yellow clump, a velvety violet facing an extremely pale mauve, black iris…thousands and thousands of iris, occupied with their punctual births and deaths, without a pause, with mixing their perfume with the mysterious foulness of manure…”.   All this accompanied by “the sound of half opened fore wings, the sound of an insect’s delicate claw, the noise of a dead leaf’s dance, but it was the irises, in the propitious filtered light, loosening the desiccated membrane rolled at the base of their calyxes, the irises who in their thousands bloomed.”

What could a woman with such an exact eye for miniscule detail, to say nothing of such a precise ability to distinguish scents, possibly have worn as perfume herself?

We know that she detested heavy fragrances. She had to leave restaurants where other diners had doused themselves, and the same thing happened to her at theatres. It never took much it seems, to activate those highly tuned senses of hers.

Her choice in perfume was slightly surprising therefore, she favored Coty’s Jasmin de Corse of 1906 , a heady perfume by all accounts.  Her selection was recorded in company archives, as it often was for the rich or famous. Apparently she wore this scent practically daily for years.

Sadly, it is hard to find now.  You can occasionally happen on a bottle or so, badly maderized on Ebay or possibly Etsy.  You might buy a sample for an outrageous sum from a decanter, but it is almost certain to be hard to tell now what it smelled like when she wore it.  Sometimes when I wear les Muses, another jasmine dominant Coty scent, I wonder if it is related to the earlier formula that Coty himself composed?  Les Muses was created too late to have been done by Coty, so this is nothing but guess work, and piece-meal guesswork at that.  I would have to go to Versailles now to smell the real thing.

Later in life she wore Jicky.  This does seem an apposite choice.  Colette was always divided into two camps, usually opposite or mutually exclusive: male and female, naïve and knowing, lazy and restlessly active. This matches up with Jicky’s internalized bi-polarities pretty well, heavy and light, ambery and citrusy, and more than a little bit gourmand while preserving a kind of adolescent austerity.

 Histoires de Parfums has a scent in its line, 1873 named for the year of her birth, that is all citrus over orange blossoms, lilies of the valley, violets and wildflowers on a musk, vanilla and caramel base. This sounds like Colette in her earliest novel, Claudine at School, where her heroine and the heroine’s classmates are forever hungry and forever trying out unlikely comestibles:

“Whatever are you eating – old crab apples?’

“Lime buds, old thing. Nothing so good. Now’s just the moment, when it’s getting on for March.’

“Give us a bit?…Really, it’s awfully good. It’s sticky like the gum on fruit trees…”

The same young lady eats colored pencils, but without the relish of last year as the school has changed brands.  The blotting paper, however, is excellent, as are the linen samples, sent out by the Bon Marche, although you can only chew on those.

Why, I ask myself, did the people at Histoires de Parfums come up with a Pamplelune doppelganger when they had a perfectly good perfume brief right here in the middle of Colette’s first novel? Lime buds over fruit, over wooden pencils, with a dash of blotting paper to finish.  On the whole, people might prefer it to Jasmin de Corse.  Possibly even Collette might.

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2 thoughts on “Perfumes for a Writer

  1. This is a wonderful post and it prompted me (finally) to hop on to eBay and pick up a copy of Colette’s essay collection, Flowers and Fruits. By all accounts it has some of her best perfume and garden writing. Been meaning to buy a copy for ages. I do find that Colette requires concentration though, perhaps because of the layering of detail, as you mention.

    Maybe she had what we now call ‘scent eating skin’? That might explain why Jasmin de Corse may not have seemed all that strong to her. Thanks for adding the link to the history of Coty perfumes. I’m going to settle down now for a good long browse. I had seen other of ‘Cleopatra’s’ websites, but not this one.

    • Glad to promote a bit of Colette reading. She’s difficult at times, but worth it, and curiously things like Gigi and Cheri are almost pulp fiction in their readability-don’t you find?
      Maybe she did have skin that eats scent, if Jasmin de Corse was anything like A la Nuit or Sarrasins, this would make sense. They’re pretty noticeable, but if J de C was like Les Muses, then it was a daytime jasmine, bright and pretty and light(er). Just have to go to Versailles to find out. What a trial.

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