Saturday, 23 June 2012

The perfumes of an imperial couple

Still on the topic of fragrances…
The perfumes of an imperial couple

I have just finished reading the letters Napoleon wrote to Josephine when they were lovers after they met in 1795 and before their marriage in March 1796. He wrote to her constantly whilst on campaign, long, passionate letters, testimony to his love and obsession for her.

‘I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures left no rest to my senses.’

‘Without your love, there’s nothing left for me on this earth and I’ll have to die.’

And  ‘There wasn’t a day when I didn’t love you, a night when I didn’t think of holding you in my arms. I curse glory and ambition for keeping me away from the woman who is the soul of my life. As I carry on with my work, head the troops, inspect the camp, my adorable Josephine is the only one in my heart.’

Along with these burning declarations of love, he sent her precious gifts from Italy, where he was fighting the Piedmont’s and Austrian armies, among which perfumes and colognes. It was indeed in Italy that ‘eau de cologne’ was invented.

Napoléon Bonaparte and Joséphine were both very fond of colognes and perfumes, so fond that before his coronation in December 1802, Napoleon asked perfume maker François Rancé to create perfumes for himself and Josephine. He gave Rancé specific instructions. His own perfume should not overpower Josephine’s but when the couple were together their scents should merge into a harmonious and unique scent. Rancé created ‘Le Vainqueur’ (the Victor) and ‘L’Impératrice’ (the Empress), which by the way you can still find today. ‘L’Impératrice’ has since been renamed ‘Joséphine’.

It wasn’t the first time that Rancé, a fervent admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, created a fragrance in his honour. He had already dedicated ‘L’Eau d’Austerliz’ and ‘La Gloire à l’Aigle Français’ (Napoleon liked to be compared to a majestic, powerful eagle) to him.

Napoleon also liked eau de cologne. His favourite cologne was a very light blend of citrus fruit, ‘Eau de Cologne’ by Houbigant. He loved it so much he used up to 60 bottles every month, pouring it into his very hot baths and rubbing it into his skin.

However, during his exile at Longwood House on the island of St Helena, he couldn’t get his beloved cologne any longer. His servant, Louis-Etienne Saint-Denis - aka ‘Ali le Mamolouk’ worked very hard to try and recreate it for him. He wrote down the composition of the cologne and his ‘recipe’ based on lemon, bergamot, rosemary and citron essences, was found in family papers in 1990.

This cologne called ‘Napoleon 1er à Sainte-Hélène’ is available from a French perfume house. So if you want to experience what the emperor smelled like, you can!

Joséphine loved perfumes too. A native of the Martinique in the West Indies she had a predilection for exotic scents such as vanilla, cinnamon and clove, but her all time favourites were musk, violet and rose. She grew more than 250 varieties of roses in the garden at her Malmaison estate near Paris and created several new varieties including ‘La Malmaison’, ‘l’Aimable Rouge’ and, of course, ‘Joséphine.’


As well as indulging in baths perfumed with Houbigant’s floral cologne ‘Quelques Fleurs’ , she was passionate about musk. She wore so much musk she started a fashion for it and was even nicknamed ‘La Folle du musc’.  Her bathtub at the Tuileries palace is said to have retained the scent, almost 200 years after her death. In December 1809, after Napoleon told her he was divorcing her because she had failed to produce an heir, it is said that she poured great quantities of musk all over the imperial apartments so that he would never forget her and Marie-Louise of Austria, his new wife, would feel always ‘smell’ her presence.

She needn’t have bothered. Napoleon never forgot her, never ceased to love her. The last words he said before dying at Saint-Helena were ‘France, the army, the Head of the Army, Josephine.’

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Little time bubbles...

As writers we know how important it is to use the five senses - sight, smell, taste, touch and sound - to bring scenes and characters to life and immerse the reader in the story.

The sense of smell is, I think, the most magical, powerful and nostalgic of all senses. A fleeting, ephemeral scent can make us travel back in time and bring people and emotions back to life - if only for a few seconds. It can make us smile or cry, it can be soothing or reopen old wounds.

There are scents many of us can identify and relate to. A writer uses scents to give the reader a better, more intense feel for a particular place, time or scene. Some smells may be a little 'cliché' but still work: the smell of burning leaves which reminds us of autumn; clementine and orange peel, cinamon and clove take us back to winter and Christmas whereas freshly-cut grass evokes spring and summer. As for flowers and plants, many readers will know the scent of roses, lilac, wisteria, lilies, to name but a few. A scene describing a walk in the countryside will feel more real if it includes scents, for example woods carpeted with wild garlic and bluebells or with damp, rotten leaves; a deep forest of fir trees with pine needles on the ground; the scent of grass and earth after a spring shower...

To help make characters unique and bring them to life we often give them a unique fragrance. As I mainly write historical romances I do confess to a predilection for certain fragrances such as sandalwood shaving soap for my hero (I do love the warmth and spice of sandalwood), and vanilla, rose, jasmine or orange blossom for the heroin. Other distinctive scents can also help define a character, for example tobacco, cigarette and cigar smoke which cling to their clothes, or the smell of brandy, whisky or mint pastilles which lingers on their breath. And let's not forget leather...

Both the reader and the writer call on their own experiences to remember the scents described or mentioned in a story. And where the reader has no experience of a particular scent he or she will have to resort to imagination. After all, vegetation, climate, animals, seasons and festivals, foods and drinks vary greatly across the continents. When writing 'The Lion's Embrace' which is mostly based in North Africa, where I've never been, I had on a few occasions to use my imagination to describe what certain dishes, flowers or animals smelled like if I couldn't find out myself (like a trip to Chester zoo for lions and  camels!) or from any other reliable source.

Perfumes can be associated with happy, traumatic or painful memories and the emotions some trigger are so personal they can be difficult to capture and communicate. To this day I cannot be near a woman wearing Guerlain's Shalimar without feeling my heart breaking. It was my mother's favourite perfume.  Ysatis of Givenchy will always remind me of the year I spent in Paris, or should I say of the year I wasted in Paris, trying to pretend I was someone I wasn't - so no great memories there at all. Food smells are incredibly evocative too. Tomato and garlic sauce, couscous, jam and freshly baked fruit tarts, especially apricots (we had an apricot tree in the garden), will aways remind me of home. If I close my eyes, I can almost hear my mother - my wonderful, funny and loving mother - sing off-key in the kitchen.

So fragrances can be like little time bubbles or time machines allowing us to revisit places and moments in time, whether we want it or not. 

One day last week, I travelled back in time - a combination of smells and fragrances took me right back to Lyon, my home town, and to one particular sunny June morning, a long time ago.  

It's early - well before nine o'clock - but warm already. The terraces are busy, cafés doors are open and let out a riot of smells - coffee, beer, lemonade, mint cordial, Pernod, beer and wine (yes, even at that time of the morning!) as well as sounds of waiters calling orders, crookery and cutlery clincking, expresso machines and music. Every time I walk past a bakery I breathe in the scents of bread, croissants and brioches and fantasize about breaking off the end of a warm, freshly-baked baguette and biting into it.    

The red sand on Place Bellecour must have just been raked because there's dust in the air and it makes me sneeze. The pavements and gutters have been sprayed clean with water, they're still wet under the lime trees along the square. I don't want to get my pumps wet so I jump over the puddles.

I smell the river - silt, green waters and weeds - before I can see it. A few more steps to the end of the street and the Saône is in front of me, wide and fast. Bright sunlight shimmers on the surface, a light breeze blows from the South along the quays. I take a deep breath and smile, thinking of the seaside where you said we might go, soon.

There's a small market on the embankment. I slow down in front of crates piled high with sweet, fragrant white and yellow peaches, ripe Cantaloupe melons, and big, lumpy, juicy tomatoes. Rows of fluffy green lettuces, still damp with dew and with soil clinging to their roots, give out a strong, earthy smell. Traders call out prices, promise passers-by a taste of heaven on earth for a few Francs (this is long before the Euro). I smile and shake my head. I'm not buying anything just yet. Maybe later...

I cross the footbridge to the old district, turn into a narrow alleyway. The doors of Cathédrale Saint Jean are wide open. Warm, smoky scents of wax candles and incense spill out onto the square together with shadows and silence. I spare a few glances for the second-hand shops and their boxes of musty old books, yellowed maps and faded sepia postcards on the cobbles.

Finally, I arrive at the terrace of the café where you’re waiting. You must have been here a while. Your black leather jacket hangs at the back of your chair. The cup of expresso in front of you is empty. You look up, close your book, put your cigarette out. And you smile. As always it makes the sun brighter, the sky more blue, the day more beautiful. I bend down to kiss you and breathe in the unique scents which are you... which were you.

One sunny morning, a long time ago, captured in a little time bubble...  

What's in your time bubble?