Count Alfred D’Orsay and the Elusiveness of…..

The one difficulty in Brideshead Revisited (okay, there are a lot of difficulties in Brideshead Revisited, but I’m only interested in one of them) is the question Sebastian Flyte’s charm.

We are assured that he has it, repeatedly, but  somehow it never quite gets off the page.   Now Waugh is some kind of writerly genius, and Sebastian is based on the real thing, but in this exercise the author is coming up against a writing challenge even harder than describing sex without sounding absurd.  Charm, like certain jokes, is evanescent.

As with Sebastian, so with Alfred.  That he had charm and by the bucket-load is widely attested, and his CV ticks all the boxes for any romance writer’s dashing leading man.  His father, a general for Bonaparte,* was considered the best looking man in the army and a dab hand at warfare.  While the general  was off expanding and defending the empire, Alfred was raised by his maternal grandmother, another good looking and elegant wit,  Anne Franchi, aka Madame Craufurd, mistress of Duke of Wurtemberg among others.  (Of her it is written “there is considerable mystery about this good lady’s career”. But I digress.) Continue reading

Strange Invisible Perfume

“From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs.”

“Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love sick with them”

The quote is Shakespeare. of course,  from Anthony and Cleopatra, she whom age could not wither nor whose infinite variety could custom stale, and if the winds were love sick, they were as nothing compared to the boyfriends, Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony.  Especially Marc Anthony, who gave up an empire for the woman. Continue reading

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

The churchmen knew their business when they brought scent into the worship of God.  Elemental stuff, you see.  Like Proust’s madeleine.  The origin of the word perfume relates to it. Per fumen – through smoke.   Some words are so ingrained in the vocabulary that one forgets that they have origins, and the origins of scented smoke are old indeed.

Early on, flavored smoke was a specific for ridding a place of other-worldy undesirables. Case in point:

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Smounds! Gadzooks!

The history of science has from time to time turned up  a number of – to us – strange lines of inquiry that run the gamut from crackpot to fraud.   The academy tends to keep out the former better than the latter, but there have been times….

Consider the case of George Washington Septimus Piesse, Ph.D, F.C.S.  (1820-1886),  author of the Art of Perfumery, The Laboratory, Young Farmer’s Science, and most particularly for Chymical Natural and Physical Magic intended for the instruction and entertainment of juveniles during the holiday vacation.  (This admirable book includes instructions on how to make not only fireworks for wholesome home entertainment,  but also laughing gas.  Try doing that today and see how far you get. We really do live in a prissy kind of age.) Continue reading

Mithridates, He Died Old

“Come, my Friends,
Let’s meet these Romans, and my Rebel Son;
Let’s kill till we are weary, then lie down
And rest forever.”

“Mithridates King of Pontus”  by Nathaniel Lee (1653 – 6 May 1692)*

Mithridates (134 BC – 63 BC) was the great eastern enemy of Rome in the days before Caesar Augustus.  Depending on your political inclinations, he was either the bold standard bearer of an oppressed minority defending his many loyal subject against a brutal Empire,  or just another swell-headed killer on the make. Continue reading

Strange Brew

If it is true, as Mike Myers suggests, that most Scottish cuisine is based on a dare, what are we to make of the foundations of perfumery?

We are, after all, talking some pretty rank stuff – extrusions from the anal glands of feral animals,  digestive aids of over-sized ocean dwelling mammals.  Not the sort of thing the average person is likely to be on the lookout for when trying to attract the opposite sex.   Whatever possessed early man to have a go at some of this stuff?  Cruel jokes are all I can figure.  Imagine for a moment the local bad lads in a seaside town  in medieval times having some sport with the village idiot and suggesting he go roll in some of that nice musk deer corpse on the edge of town, or cover himself in some washed up ambergris.*

Joke was on them a few days later when the village idiot had a girl on each arm and several trailing behind asking if he would prefer cider, mead, or me?

Who’s stinky now?

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Not Tonight, The King Has a Headache

As noted in a previous post,  it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Case in point, Louis XIV, the Sun King, one of the great over-indulgers of history.  This is the same man who built Versailles, and more extravagant than that, it is hard to be.  Between the painters and performers and the cakes and the wine and the women and the wars, he made time to confer with his perfumer Martial over new and exotic scents, and lots of them.  Not only was he noted as the most brilliant monarch of his age, but also as the sweetest smelling.

Then, one day late in the seventeenth century,  he just gave it up.  Went cold turkey.  Could no longer abide the stuff.  Said anything but orange blossoms gave him headaches. What the king would not, the court could not.  Women of quality fell into vapors at the mere sight of flowers and men declared (possibly truthfully) that they had hated perfume all along.

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(Rose 11) – Rose Trivia

In the beginning, all roses were white.  It took Aphrodite’s pricking herself on a thorn and bleeding to put a touch of pink into the bloom. (There’s a Christian story to the same effect, the rose bush in question being beneath the cross.)  Aphrodite appropriated the flower for herself, making it a standard for all things love related.   She had her son Eros (aka Cupid) deliver a bouquet to Harpocrates, the god of silence, as a bribe to prevent his blabbing about Aphrodites’  decidedly sex positive private life.

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Real Men Don’t Wear Scent, Part II

So much for the the ancients and ocean travellers.  It happened that post-renaissance landlubbers, no less confident in their machismo, could also be comfortable with perfume.

We’re talking Louis XIV and Louis XV, who, despite the wigs, were no shrinking violets*; they beggared the country with war and jumped women like champions. Perhaps the two were connected.  Women seem to respond to a man in uniform. Continue reading

Real Men Don’t Wear Scent, Part I

“Suppose we go further,” said Callias, “and have some one bring us some perfume, so that we may dine in the midst of pleasant odours, also.” “No, indeed!” replied Socrates. “For just as one kind of dress looks well on a woman and another kind on a man, so the odours appropriate to men and to women are diverse. No man, surely, ever uses perfume for a man’s sake.”…

“That may do for young fellows,” observed Lycon; “but what of us who no longer exercise in the gymnasia? What should be our distinguishing scent?”

“Nobility of soul, surely!” replied Socrates.

“And where may a person get this ointment?”

“Certainly not from the perfumers,” said Socrates.

(Xenophon, Symposium)

There you have it.  Proof positive that the prejudice against men and scent is not limited to up-tight American WASPs of a certain age and background, but has in fact a long and pointed history.  Socrates believe that men should smell of “free labor and manly exercise”.

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