I have recently disappeared down a rabbit hole of reading about, sampling and buying perfumes. I was already a bit of an addict, but when I hosted my book club last month, we read The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr, and it took me off on a journey to discover all kinds of new scents. This is not a cheap habit. I’ve ordered dozens of samples of fragrances I want to experience. I’ve discovered new loves. I’ve bought enough perfume that, believe it or not, I have stopped browsing in book stores because, really, I can only have one obsession in need of an intervention at a time. Friends have asked me if they should stage an intervention. Of course not. I’m not going into bookstores anymore, right? (Well, there was that quick trip into the Bob Miller….)
Both books and perfumes give me a down to the tips of my toes kind of joy, and it is really wonderful when my obsessions complement each other. When I read this passage about E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View from the wonderful How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, I knew just the perfume to go with the scene. Here is Ellis:
channelling Helena Bonham-Carter in the luscious Merchant Ivory film, I cultivated bird’s nest hair and set off for a month in Florence, just before my final year [of university]. I was there to learn Italian, but the classes at the fusty stuccoed British Institute were just in the mornings. The sun-drenched afternoons and the cool, lazy evenings were for awestruck wandering, gazing at frescoes and eating gelato. I tried to give myself up to beauty, as Forster advises. He sends Lucy to Santa Croce without her Baedeker guide, and at first she’s frustrated by not knowing which tomb is the most beautiful, which most praised by Ruskin. The church feels enormous, and cold. (It is.) Then suddenly ‘the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.’ … A friend was passing through Florence, and we took the orange bus out to Fiesole, in the hills above the city. It’s in those hills, covered in violets, that George kisses Lucy. We made for the Roman amphitheatre and sat on the stage, and read out my play. He read the boys, I read the girls. We had the whole arc of honey-coloured stones to ourselves, the whole blue sky. Later I’d direct it in Cambridge and on the Edinburgh Fringe, but that afternoon in Fiesole was where it startled into life. At Fiesole, Lucy sees the violets and feels spring, really feels the sun and the flowers blooming and opening, and suddenly feels that she can see the world ‘beautiful and direct’–and then George kisses her. Because of Lucy, and because of Fiesole, I felt that too: that things were clearing, that I could see. (141-145)
I read that passage and got up to spritz myself with Room with a View by Christopher Brosius for C B I Hate Perfume before reading it again. Here is Brosius on Room with a View:
This perfume captures the scent of the hills above Florence – the vineyards, the wild grass, the finocchio, the hot dusty Florentine earth. And of course a torrent of violets.
And it does. Just as Ellis gets inspiration to write from Lucy and from the setting in which her fictional heroine feels, so, too, did Brosius create from the spring that Forster’s setting provides. He cites this passage as the inspiration for his perfume:
[Lucy] did not answer. From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; the terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.
Standing at its brink, like a swimmer who prepares, was the good man. But he was not the good man that she had expected, and he was alone.
George had turned at the sound of her arrival. For a moment he contemplated her, as one who has fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.
And there was I, smelling Brosius’s dusty earth and torrent of violets, rejoicing in Ellis’s seeing the world beautiful and direct.