I was 5 when I first got hooked on a book. It was during one of the afternoon library sessions at school and I was sat in my pinstriped uniform on a cushion on the floor, surrounded by fellow pupils sitting cross-legged and rapt, listening to my teacher read aloud from My Family and Other Animals.
“Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen,” she read, and as the spell of those melodic words met my ears, so too did the distant sound of a lawnmower whirring. Next, inevitably, the unmistakable scent of freshly-cut grass burst through the open window and reminded me with its crisp sweetness that summer was on its way.
Those words and that scent wove themselves together tightly in my young mind, and to this day I find both green, fresh perfumes and writing by Gerald Durrell instantly bring me joy - and transport me back to that sunny, book-filled room.
As the years have passed, the symbiosis between books and scent has continued. In 2003, life smelled of Ghost and salt spraying off the sea in Zakynthos as I read Hideous Kinky next to friends who were being burnt to a crisp by the Greek sun. 2007 belonged to a boy who smelled of Lynx Africa and to the Lovely Bones. In 2011, I married in Austria in a cloud of Jo Malone’s (sadly discontinued) Sweet Milk mixed with their Earl Grey and Cucumber scent. After the revelry, I curled up not with hubs - who continued to party - but with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The scent and the book are now inextricably bound with my recollection of that time.
According to the experts, that both novels and fragrance remain indelibly fixed in my mind alongside periods of my life is entirely textbook because they essentially both do the same thing to the subconscious by nestling in to the emotional centre of our brains. “When you’re taken hand-in-hand on a journey in a novel, it can percolate into your subconscious in a meaningful and life-changing way,” says Ella Berthould, bibliotherapist and co-writer of The Novel Cure and The Story Cure. “Books bypass the normal conduits of experience and our conscious brain to evoke emotion and arouse empathy - it’s a visceral, profound effect.”
Similarly, fragrance arouses psychological responses as smells are processed by the olfactory bulb, which has connections to the amygdala and hippocampus - aka the key organs in controlling happiness and fear. Sergio Momo, founder and creative director of XERJOFF, explains: “smell is the only sense we have that connects to the brain’s limbic system, which is closely related to our imagination, feelings and memories - it’s basically our emotional brain.” Curiously, neither sound, touch nor sight are processed by this part of the brain, making scent uniquely powerful in stirring up memories.
Innovators in fragrance are cottoning on to the relationship between stories and scent, with several now homing in on the idea of fiction to convey the brand - or individual fragrance’s - message. Master Perfumer Roja Dove considers formulating with a narrative in mind to be second nature: “a perfumer is a poet or a story teller, who creates narratives out of ingredients - those ingredients are the perfumer’s language, used to create or bring a story to life.”
Josh Meyer, perfumer at Imaginary Authors, agrees: “Perfume is vivid - it conjures up colours and sounds and shapes and memories. At Imaginary Authors, we create perfumes and then assign them a story by a fake author to inform buyers about the tone and vibe of the scent rather than either creating traditionally commercial advertising with, say, naked chics or dudes on ranches or - at the other end of the spectrum - clear bottles without any messaging about what’s inside whatsoever.”
The process also works in reverse, with fiction inspiring perfume, as is the case with DS & Durga’s White Peacock Lily, which was inspired by Fiona MacLeod’s poem The White Peacock, during which she references pomegranates, blossom and ‘thick magnolias / In billowy masses.’ The perfume is accordingly fruity and floral at once, with a hint of nostalgia and powderiness. Cult perfumer Frederic Malle also took a cue from literature when formulating his Portrait of a Lady fragrance, deciding that it should be ‘lavishly feminine and opulent’ in character - much like the spirited protagonist of James’s novel.
For lovers of literature who are time poor, the link with fragrance may be a handy one - while I now rarely have the time to escape into a book during the afternoon, I still tap into my favourite novels when I’m flagging come 4pm by using a spritz of this or squirt of that to send me back into whichever adventure held my imagination captive. For me, scent provides the physical key to past real or fictional worlds. If leaping in from either direction sounds appealing to you, here are some perfect pairings:
If you like: The Great Gatsby
Try: Sisley Izia.
Fizzy, sparkling and green at the core, this rose-based scent tallies with the ebullience of Fitzgerald’s classic 1920s novel. It also smells pretty much precisely how we imagine Daisy would smell based on Gatsby’s description of the scent of her room: ’not musty… but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.’
If you like: Harry Potter
Try: Atelier Cologne Oud Saphir
‘[It was] emitting one of the most seductive scents Harry had ever inhaled: somehow it reminded him simultaneously of treacle tart, the woody smell of a broomstick handle, and something flowery he thought he might have smelled at the Burrow.’ We imagine this blend of wood, vanilla, suede leather, jasmine and pink pepper is pretty close to the spellbinding potion Harry is describing.
If you like: Chocolat
Try: Serge Lutens Veilleur de Nuit
When the perfumers at Lutens formulated Veilleur de Nuit, they must have had these words in mind: ’the air is hot and rich with the scent of chocolate… a throaty richness like the perfumed beans from the coffee stall on the market, a redolence of amaretto and tiramisu, a smoky, burned flavour.’ If you can imagine that heady mix, you’ve pretty much got an idea of how Veilleur de Nuit smells with its notes of warm, spicy cacao blended with smoky woodiness.
If you like: Wuthering Heights
Try: Penhaligon’s Blasted Heath
Picture the ‘soft wind breathing through the grass,’ and Heathcliff roaming the moors of Yorkshire, then add in a pinch of sea spray and voila! you’re inadvertently imagining Blasted Heath, with all its musky, masculine, moody hints of tobacco and sage and vetiver.
If you like: Fifty Shades of Grey
Try: Acqua di Parma Leather Eau de Cologne
Think Christian Grey and leather will never be too far from your thoughts - whether it’s the leather of THAT room, the upholstered leather of his plush office or, of course, the crack of a leather whip. This great whack of a leather scent captures that perfectly, throwing in a touch of carnal woodiness to round it out.
If you like: A Room With A View
Try: Annick Goutal Eau D’Hadrien
‘A smell! A true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell!’ Had Eleanor Lavish smelled the classic Eau D’hadrien, she’d have undoubtedly agreed that it is the scent to assign Florence thanks to the zingy mix of lemon, mandarin orange and ylang-ylang to slice through the Tuscan heat. Fittingly, it’s a bit of a bold number that we can totally imagine headstrong Lucy Honeychurch wearing.
If you like: The Enchanted April
Try: Tom Ford Neroli Portofino Forte
Fancy being transported from the drizzle of the UK to the coast of Portofino? Spritz on this crisp scent that’s redolent of citrus fruits and coastal breeze carrying fresh flowers, or get reading the Enchanted April ASAP: they’ll both whisk you away to Italy’s sunnier shores in no time.
If you like: Mrs Dalloway
Try: Jo Malone Garden Lilies Cologne
One of a quintet of colognes released by Jo Malone to celebrate the famous Bloomsbury Set, this scent recalls the floral motifs that crop up again and again as Mrs Dalloway. This one’s a sophisticated number, too, so if you like Clarissa are planning on hosting a soiree, we’d recommend getting your hands on this.
If you like: Anything Bond
Try: Creed Royal Oud
According to bond buffs, 007 never wore cologne, but if he had, we reckon that this would be his scent of choice. A bit spicy thanks to pink pepper, a lot citrusy by way of lemon and bergamot and undeniably masculine (that would be the bitter green notes), a whiff of this makes us think of the sexiest of spies.