Off the scent

Well, my plans to get my blog back on track were derailed – by myself and child number 2 catching the SARS-CoV-2 virus. What was (in the event) a minor misfortune, at least in our case, was overlaid by an enormous amount of luck – that I experienced it as a bad cold rather than anything serious, that I am ‘double jabbed’, that whilst well enough to work, I was able to do so from home for an understanding employer… Covid has, however, taken away my sense of smell and taste – I hope, I trust, temporarily. That is, I am experiencing ansomia and ageusia. It’s my observation these are just two of the words Covid has added to the daily dictionary – ones most of us, outside the medical world, rarely would use pre pandemic.

An article in The New York Times back in January this year suggested that loss of smell can be related to “an inability to feel pleasure, as well as a strange sense of detachment and isolation,” quoting Dr. Sandeep Robert Datta, an associate professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, who noted that “Memories and emotions are intricately tied to smell, and the olfactory system plays an important though largely unrecognized role in emotional well-being.”

There we go. Smells are evocative; they take you straight back to a particular time and place. We have an entire menu or inventory of memories in store ready to be triggered by smell, what Charles Baudelaire described in his collection Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) as a ‘Flask’, which is to say un flacon, one of various scents combined into a perfume: “…poking through a house, in closets shut for years / Full of the scent of time – acrid, musky, dank / One comes, perhaps, upon a flask of memories / In whose escaping scent a soul returns to life.”

And so yes, smells absolutely have a role in sensory writing, to describe a scene, a person, a place, to bring a concept to life in the mind of the reader. For better (aroma, fragrance, scent…) or for worse (stench, stink, whiff, pong, reek…)

In her article The Smell of Class: British novels of the 1860s, Janice Carlisle even notes how Victorian novelists ‘represent smells according to a “code”’ with smells such as roses and fine wax candles representing upper classes, odours such as cheap tallow candles the poorer classes.

A little later in his Edwardian novel The Man of Property (first in the Forsyte Saga), John Galsworthy described the avaricious Soames descending the stairs ‘where was always that rather pleasant smell of camphor and port wine, and house where draughts are not permitted.’ The fragrance of the secure, wealthy house.

In contrast, this class aspect also puts me in mind of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. Not fiction, but it has a novelist’s pen, and descriptions of smells were common as he investigated the miserable living conditions of the 1930s poor in northern England. Without the luxuries of scents, fine wines, even fresh water. In one working man’s lodgings, as Orwell wakes up, “the room stank like a ferret’s cage. You did not notice it when you got up, but if you went out of the room and came back, the smell hit you in the face with a smack.”

Turning to lives of genteel poverty, in her novel The Rosemary Tree, Elizabeth Goudge describes the vicarage where resides vicar John Wentworth, wife Daphne, and their family, ‘a dreary flagged stoned place where an aroma of mice fought daily with a smell of cabbage and fish. However much Daphne opened the window she could never get rid of the smells, for the damp of the kitchen imprisoned them.’ It is smell more than sight or sound that is used to describe the neglected, crumbling, and stifling atmosphere of the place. If you’ve ever lived in an old house, particularly one that has periodically hosted our murine friends, you can smell the mouse pee, the foetid sweetness of their nests.

Angela Carter’s writing is highly sensual. The smells she chose could be unpleasant – the smell of urine in a slum street, for instance, but are more often overpoweringly opulent, sometimes rotting – or designed to disguise decay, at least. Like the ‘richthickwild scent’ with which the Beast anointed himself in her re-telling of Beauty and The Beast, or repeated reference to the heavy, heady ‘funereal’ scent of lilies in The Bloody Chamber.

It’s not all roses. These are everyday smells of houses, people, humanity. But right now I’d be grateful to pick up almost any smell once again.

Image thanks
Main photo by Bundo Kim on Unsplash
Smaller by SarahCreates on Unsplash

13 thoughts on “Off the scent

  1. By the time I was eleven my friend and I had accumulated forty white mice, kept in the rather superior garden shed my father had built himself and never really got to use! But I can attest to the sweet foetid smell, not unpleasant really combined with the sweet meadow hay of their bedding…. Yes scent is very evocative and taken for granted until we lose it. I can sympathise with the loss of taste. Chemotherapy has made food taste disgusting, I’m not sure how that compares with no taste. Fortunately it returns to normal for nearly a week before it’s time for the next session. My next door neighbour said it took a good few weeks to gradually get his taste back after Covid.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am hopeful olfactory and gustatory capacities will return soon, thanks for the reassurance.
      I am so very sorry to hear you’re dealing with chemotherapy and going through this- had the fourth round, I see from your site. That’s incredibly tough, the exhaustion and side effects. All best wishes it will do the trick.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks L, had a good weekend, roast chicken and wine never tasted so good, off for fifth session this afternoon.

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        1. Glad you have the sensual treats between the bouts of treatment. All the very best with it.

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  2. Michael Graeme Nov 12, 2021 — 9:29 pm

    I do hope you’re recovered from Covid, and that your sense of smell and taste returns soon. This was a fascinating account of scent in literature and to which I can relate.

    I seem to have had a head start with anosmia, having struggled with it for a decade or more – result of allergies or something. No one was really sure, so I had to become an expert in it myself. I wrote about it in another blog “Scent and Scentability”. Yes, it’s a strange place to be – colourless, I used to think, and all food tasted the same – of nothing. You relied on the texture to tell them apart.

    There wasn’t much research into it at the time, as if it wasn’t considered an important member of the senses, but as anyone who has lost it knows, it’s vital to our sense of being. Mine has made more or less a full recovery now. As it returned, one of the most notable things was its ability to conjure up the most vivid memories.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, and glad to hear you have recovered. Years ago, we had a family friend who lost his sense of smell and taste permanently, and it was just miserable for him, I think it’s an underrated loss. Interestingly, he started to depend more on food textures – an appreciation for crisp lettuce, for example.
      Fingers crossed for your full recovery.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. An excellent post for your return. I am only sorry about the reason that inspired you and hope that you recover fully soon.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much – well on the mend and very lucky it was a mild does, in my case.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so sorry to hear you lost a sense of smell and that your family had a brush with Covid. Glad to hear you are on the mend. Smell is SUCH an important sense, isn’t it? I sometimes worry that I have a hyper-sensitive olfactory sense but when I learned that it was a symptom of this particular infection, it occurred to me how much smell is related to taste. And both are sources of great pleasure, like the lovely examples you wrote about.

    Hope you continue to improve and your sensory faculties are completely restored soon. Be well & take care.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s one of those that you don’t think about that much until it’s lost – for a while. As I say, we’ve been lucky as Covid in our case was mild – appreciate that is not the case for everyone, very sadly. Thanks so much for your wishes, and all the best to you, too.

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  5. I’m sorry to hear you’ve lost your sense of smell, and more importantly, that you had COVID at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, though I was lucky in having a mild dose. I appreciate many people haven’t been so fortunate.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. 😦 sorry to here that miss Libre Paley, my thoughts are Covid and her many darn variants are here for the foreseeable, Australia is testament that suppression doesn’t work and never will, so thank god for vaccines I say. Our Engineering stores was closed last week after 3 storemen tested positive, my mum’s next door neighbours have had it and a Polish lady friend of mine had it really bad ventilator and all……but she survived lol, humans are stoic animals.

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