In praise of perfume

In which buying a new fragrance triggers thoughts of things past…

Scent is the most mysterious, primal sense of all – have you ever had your mouth water and your tummy rumble at the aroma of frying bacon, or been fore-warned not to eat something in the fridge by an unusual odour? How about feeling comforted by the smell of your mother’s skin-cream, aroused by the scent of your lover’s hair or returned to your teenage years by the sweetness of candyfloss and popcorn?

Classic advert for Miss Dior - 1950s

Classic advert for Miss Dior – 1950s

This is the Proustian Effect, when a smell unleashes a flood of memories, taking you back to a particular time and place. The theory is named after the French writer Marcel Proust, who in his novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) describes a character vividly recalling long-forgotten childhood memories after smelling a madeleine cake dipped in linden-blossom tea. Proust wasn’t actually the first to describe the ability of smells to trigger memory – experts suggest the link is due to the close proximity of the parts of our brains linked with processing smells, and those controlling emotion and memory.



Smell is so important – not just for everyday enjoyment, but as a basic human survival trait. Anosmia – the lack of a sense of smell as a result of medication, a head injury or even a very bad cold, can trigger depression and a withdrawal from life. In my short story Making Sense (see here), the heroine suffers from Hyperosmia, a massively heightened sense of smell, which leaves her able to ‘see’ traces of fragrance floating like colours on the air.  I have a sensitivity to smell which leaves me sniffing around the house for stray abandoned socks, burying my nose gleefully in roses as I walk past my neighbours’ gardens, and can leave me nauseous while in the throes of a migraine.

art nouveau

Art Nouveau style perfume ad – 1920s.

Scent has the power to sicken, stimulate, comfort or arouse and so it’s surprising that perfume features only fleetingly in literature. Oscar Wilde used exotic fragrances as an extended metaphor for decadent, tainted luxuriousness in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and scents feature in romance stories as easy shorthand for the sweetness of the heroine / manliness of the hero – but perfume is rarely the centre, the driving force of a novel. An exception is Patrick Süskind’s ‘Perfume – the story of a murderer’, which follows the ‘de-scent’ into madness of a perfume obsessive, determined to capture the fragrance of beautiful virgins – a hugely popular book which stayed on the bestselling lists in Germany for nine years. The film of the book was a disaster, possibly because film is utterly unable to capture the magic of scent (which is why perfume ads have always been glossy, glamorous fictions selling an imagined, potential lifestyle, rather than making any real attempt to explain what they actually smell like).

Perfumes%20paperbackThe best book written on perfume has to be ‘Perfumes – The A-Z Guide’ by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez. A comprehensive guide to nearly 2,000 commercially-available perfumes, with descriptions and ratings, this isn’t just a handbook, but a fabulous read, full of flavour, humour and anecdotes – a love story to perfume in all its forms. Lauded by writers including Hilary Mantel and Joanne Harris, the book inspired a love story of its own; after corresponding via email, and writing the book together, the authors (a renowned biophysicist and a journalist) fell in love and married.


As the advert voiceover said – “Is this you touching me or me touching you? I don’t know where I end and you begin..”

We wear perfume because we like the smell ourselves, because it reflects (we hope) something about our personalities, and for the reaction we hope the scent will trigger in others. I remember meeting an ex-boyfriend years after we’d broken up and him sniffing appreciatively and saying – “You smell exactly how I remember you!” It was a surprise, because I wasn’t wearing the romantic, expensive Calvin Klein Eternity he used to buy for me (I loved its weird blend of roses, white wine and TCP antiseptic), but basic old Body Shop White Musk, the safest, cleanest, most sensible scent there is, the teenage-girl perfume I’d been wearing when we’d first met, many years before.

Ahhh… The Body Shop. I’ve never quite forgiven them for abandoning their Dewberry range and then reformulating the divine, marzipan and Play-doh Vanilla scent of the 1980s into something that smells like a cheap car-freshener.  Venturing into a Body Shop recently to buy some talcum powder for the Mother-in-Law, I idly spritzed my wrists with their latest offering – and was blown away…

The Body Shop’s new Italian Summer Fig is a dead-ringer (or whatever the olfactory equivalent is) for one of my favourite perfumes, Premier Figuier by L’Artisan Parfumeur.  Actually, this obscure but award-winning French perfume house makes several of my favourite perfumes – they’re famous for taking simple single notes, like smoky Lapsong Souchong tea, fresh figs or ripe blackberries and blending them into complex scents that smell delicious, fresh and real. But as poor writers can seldom afford to splash out over £70 a time for their scents, this Body Shop ‘smell-a-like’ seems like an absolute bargain at a quarter of the price.

I begged the Body Shop staff to sell me a bottle, (which they obligingly fetched from a back room, as it wasn’t officially supposed to launch until today), and I’ve been happily wearing it for the past month, fig 2feeling delightfully fresh and summery. The composition of the fragrance, according to their blurb, “opens with sparkling, refreshing shades of green notes and vine leaves, combined with honey fruit figs. The heart adds floral flavors of rose spiced with saffron while the base calms down the floral-fruity union with warm, woody notes of oak and amber.” The language of perfume can be as pretentious as wine-tasting; to me, Italian Summer Fig simply blends the fresh outdoorsy smell of green leaves with sweet, powdery coconut-milk, smelling exactly like, well, a perfectly ripe fig. And that, as far as I am concerned, is a very good thing.