Thursday, 14 June 2012

Funky smells and the Victorians

Whilst I was writing up my PhD Scented Visions: The Victorian Olfactory Imagination, I had the amazing fortune to be able to live onsite for a year at The Watts Gallery in Surrey, the wonderful time-warp gallery dedicated to the Victorian artist G. F. Watts. One day, I was viewing the paintings with my friend (the Assistant Curator) and one of the Elders of the gallery - a patron or a trustee, I forget - who I had met for the first time that day. As we came to Watts’s painting Eve Repentant (one panel of a triptych) my dear friend announced, “Christina has a very interesting theory about this painting....”  Now this was acutely embarrassing to me, because I only have one tentative theory about this painting and it is that the chestnut leaves in the paintings may be a veiled allusion to the smell of semen - and thus to Eve's shame. The idea had come to me after I had found a few mentions in Victorian books on fragrant plants about Chestnut trees having this smell. Having joked about this to my friend, I was now in the unexpected position of having to relate this charming piece of information to this rather Victorian gentleman!

I seem to have a strange fascination for plants that have a human smell. For example at the Eden Project, you can currently find flowering The Titan Arum, often known as the Corpse flower because, when it finally gets around to flowering (it takes about 13 years), it stinks like rotting flesh. The Gingko tree apparently smells of vomit. Then there is Phallus Ravenelii – the Common Stinkhorn - a toadstool that smells of faeces. The phallus part of its latin name apparently comes from the fact that the stalk is supported by pressurized fluid rather than solid tissue, in a manner similar to an erection - well that and the way it looks, obviously! Apparently, Charles Darwin’s daughter Etty wished to protect the modesty of her maids by going out in to the nearby woods, ' nostrils twitching' on the hunt for these stinking phalluses!  When 'she caught a whiff of her prey' she would pounce 'upon her victim and and poke its putrid carcass into her basket' before burning it in 'deepest secrecy, on the drawing room fire, with the door locked.'   Gwen Raverat, Period Piece (1952).
Twentieth century ideas about Victorian prudity, come up again in Mitchell and Webb's crude but amusing comedy sketch about the scent of linden trees, in which Queen Victoria comments on their rather peculiar 'male' smell.     The joke for Mitchell and Webb is imagining Queen Victoria commenting on such a thing. But I just know that there WILL be Victorian and nineteenth-century popular and literary references to such smells, out there. Think for example of Des Esseintes' syphilitic orchids in Huysmann’s Against Nature or of La Sariette's fruit stall in Zola’s account of the Les Halles markets, in which the intoxicating scent seems to both evoke and provoke her sexual ripening. Much as the painter George Elgar Hicks, I believe, makes a joke about the putrid smell of fish and the sexual morals of fish wives in Billingsgate Market (1861), (something that would have been evident to Victorian readers of various commentaries on the sexual morals of London market stall holders and fish wives in particular), there are surely more smelly visual puns out there. Not from Queen Victoria though I suspect. I went through her online diaries the other day looking for references to smell and perfume, in the hope of being able to write a good Jubilee post, but disappointingly, it seems that apart from the occasional problem with the Palace drains and the odd gift of a scent bottle, she didn't have too much to say about odours, and nothing at all about linden trees! 

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