Some writers set the scene of a novel with visuals, others like to give us a sense of how their characters feel, as in the ghost’s cold little hand at the beginning of Wuthering Heights, but Oscar Wilde decides at the very beginning of The Portrait of Dorian Gray to tell us how things smelled.
“The studio was filled with the rich odor of roses,” the novel begins,” and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate scent of the pink flowering thorn.” It’s a very odd way to begin a novel. Possibly Wilde felt that if you know how a place smells you know automatically how it looks and that a long description is therefore unnecessary.
Instead Wilde continues his olfactory description. Lord Henry Wotten is lying on “Persian saddlebags” which implies a smell of old wool, and is smoking cigarettes, so a nicotine haze blurs this atmosphere. Through the open door come more flower fragrances, laburnum in bloom, and the flowering woodbine, which are just other names for gold chain trees and honeysuckle.
Finally, this is a slightly unkempt garden and so you also have the smell of long grass mixing in with everything else. This is not a neat tidy suburban plot that Wilde is describing
but an overgrown, neglected garden, all the more lush because it has not been weeded or edged or mowed.
So this perfume of Dorian’s (because he’s having his portrait painted in this studio on this summer day) is a floral one with notes of indolic hawthorn, narcotic lilac, and lots of rose, with the vanilla scent of golden chain trees, and then the fruity perfume of honeysuckle. You add a slight animalic tinge of woolens, the hay scent of un-mown grass, and an unhurried zigzag of rising cigarette smoke winding in and out of the bouquet.
It’s quite a scent. Notice that you’re smelling late spring flowers, and that the only traces of decadence come from that old harbinger of future sexual indiscretions- the hawthorn. Hawthorn is odd because it’s full of a chemical called trimethylamine*, which sometimes gives the worst smelling cultivars a fish scent. In other cases, the plants smell like almonds and are pleasant. You see how hawthorn can be a difficult plant to place in gardens. It was in No 5 for years though, so not at all foreign to fine perfumery, like the animalics, and some plant ingredients, like angelica or cumin which mimic animal scents, hawthorn is a tricky matter of dosage.
Altogether if I were a perfumer, this is one of the briefs I would want to work on, because if you think about it, this has everything. There is beauty, and freshness, themes of immortality and mortality too, and then there is the fate that the novel has in store for
Dorian, and that takes some foreshadowing, but could be done in the perfume, and the end must linger and seduce but also,be just the slightest bit ghastly. I would go further, and say that the end is the most important part of this perfume. After all we know that Dorian is going to get this business of mortality and ethics wrong, badly wrong, and we can’t warn him to let go of this particular day when he was perfect. The perfume has to reflect this ominous future while remaining beguiling and sensual.
What a perfume it would make: innocence that will shortly become all too experienced then menacing.
Do you have any examples of literary perfumes? And by the way, what do you think a perfumer should call this perfume of Dorian’s?
- According to Reddell and Galyean in Growing Fragrant Plants