Scent and Story: Perfumes for Your Favorite Literary Characters
One of the things I love most about perfume is its transformative power — on a level most people aren’t fully aware of, scent has the power to evoke entire histories and characteristics within seconds, changing our perception of other people and ourselves, and giving us a unique tool for self-expression and disguise.
With that in mind, I’ve been thinking of some of my favorite literary characters and what they might wear, and thought I’d suggest some scents for conjuring your favorite stories and personalities through perfume.
Katherine Clifton, from The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje - Vol de Nuit, by Guerlain
This one feels kind of obvious, but I couldn’t resist. One of Guerlain’s undisputed masterpieces, Vol de Nuit is named for the eponymous novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, meaning “Night Flight.” Created in 1933, it was meant to capture the glamor and mystery of air travel, of long stretches of stars and desert, clear air, stark vistas. Its opening has a feeling of ascending, buoyed by bergamot aMnd galbanum, and dries down to a stirring blend of oak moss, iris, and daffodil. It is dry, and melancholy to the point of heartbreak. It has a thousand-yard stare and a cut-glass English accent, belying a passionate and feral love of freedom. Its sillage, soft in the current formulation, haunts and compels. There are downright unspeakable things I would do for a vintage bottle of the original, which is worlds above the current formulation. Increasing restrictions on natural materials in perfume have meant the loss of the rich oakmoss, and a lot of the gritty depth that makes Vol de Nuit so legendary. But if you still want a hint of it, a ghostly touch of a silk scarf at your throat, try the current formula anyway.
Puck, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare - Lolita Lempicka
This is one of my favorite summer perfumes. If any perfume would be worn by a chaos-loving fae creature, this is it. Deceptively sweet, with velvety almond, cherry-like heliotrope, and tonka, this turns all expectations on its head with twists of green ivy, eerie violet, and a licorice twist of anise. There’s something playful and a little twisted about it. Think of a secret garden on a late summer evening, gloaming and dappled shadows, and ivy round the gate. It’s a fae pact of a perfume, delightful and tricky, and it wears like a laugh waiting at the corner of your mouth.
Anna Karenina, from Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy - Portrait of a Lady, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle
While this is named for an entirely different novel (the one by Henry James), I always think of Anna Karenina when I smell it. It’s exquisitely blended and balanced, which lends an elegant feel to an otherwise swooningly-sensual blend of Turkish rose, raspberry, cinnamon, sandalwood, ambroxan and musk. It shimmers on the skin, just as Anna is said to be full of a barely-restrained energy — of will, and feeling, and force.
"In that brief look Vronsky had time to notice the suppressed eagerness which played over her face, and flitted between the brilliant eyes and the faint smile that curved her red lips. It was as though her nature were so brimming over with something that against her will it showed itself now in the flash of her eyes, and now in her smile. Deliberately she shrouded the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in the faintly perceptible smile.”
This perfume shivers and moves on the skin like swirling silks and furs lit by firelight. It unfolds as the day goes on like a rose, and every part of its progression is complex and compelling. It’s the perfect scent for winter — for nights at the opera and long walks in the frigid air, for the heat of hands and breath rising in a plume from your lips. The kind of perfume that speaks volumes without a word.
Anne Shirley, from the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery - En Passant, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle
This is Anne as a grown woman, standing in a garden in the evening. It reminds me so much of the later books, particularly the tender beauty of “Anne’s House of Dreams”, and how it marries the tender love between Anne and Gilbert, and Anne and her friends, with the reverence and wildness of her still-powerful imagination, and the growing understanding of life’s sadness too, which serves only to throw its joys into sharper relief. This is one of the most breathtakingly tender perfumes I’ve ever smelled: rain-drenched lilac and soft, warm wheat — the smell of rain having just passed through. It’s crushed petals and dove-grey light. It dreams and murmurs, and even prays. It’s wild grace, hard-won love, gentle recollection, all in one.
Mishka Hoosen is a writer, creative director, and neophyte perfumer living and working in Cape Town, South Africa. Their first novel, Call it a difficult night, was published by Deep South Books in 2015, and they're currently working on a book about perfume and the anthropocene thanks to a residency from IFAS. Mishka is The Attic on Eighth’s Perfume Columnist.