Good Housekeeping (UK)
EVERY SCENT TELLS A TALE says author Joanne Harris
Indulgence, inspiration, obsession… Master storyteller and bestselling novelist Joanne Harris reveals why perfume is the oldest magic there is
scent awakens memory; it speaks to the other senses; it seems to exist outside of time; it sometimes even awakens the dead. My grandfather’s pipe tobacco, Clan, has such a sweet and distinctive scent that, 20 years after his death, it still evokes his presence. And its colour is a faded red, like the fisherman’s smock he used to wear when we went sailing together, and the colour still smells of sunshine, and wind, and a hundred happy memories.
To me, most scents have colours. It’s a form of synaesthesia, in which the brain confuses stimuli, converting sounds to shapes, or tastes, giving colours to days of the week or, in my case, converting colours to scent so that sometimes I find it difficult to separate one from the other. Perhaps this is why, in my house, there are so many brightly coloured things; and why I always like to keep my favourite perfumes close by, alongside my books and my paintings.
Perfume is my greatest indulgence. Not chocolate, not shoes, but bottles of scent; dozens – no, hundreds – of bottles, each one containing a genie that, when uncorked, can work everyday miracles of memory and mood. Some perfumes are little capsules of time: like the Ô de Lancôme I wore the year I first met my
husband. I was sixteen, at sixth-form college, and its colour is the same bright-green as the pullover I used to wear – a fresh and vibrant citrus scent that still brings back those happy days more clearly than a photograph. Or Guerlain’s Chamade, with its dark chypre base, which I wore at university. Being an impoverished student then, I couldn’t afford the eau de parfum, but used the bath oil as perfume instead, and thought myself very sophisticated. Or Yves Rocher’s Ispahan, which somehow smells of our first home – a rather run-down terrace house, with colourful murals on the walls and a perpetual fog of patchouli and frankincense.
Our sense of smell is the first to develop. As infants, it is the sense of smell that first connects us to the world. I remember, in the maternity ward, when my daughter was born, holding her – just a few hours old – up to a vase of freesias standing by the bedside. Her reaction was immediate; her little head turned; her mouth opened in an immediate and instinctive desire to explore and to experience.
As adults, we can too often become jaded by the multitude of sense–impressions coming at us all the time. Traffic, televisions, radios, billboards, mobile phones, the constant comings and goings of other people – all can contribute to a sensory overload that can lead to stress and confusion.
But close your eyes, relax, and the sense of smell comes back into its own. Scent speaks directly to the subconscious, sometimes evoking whole scenes that even photographs cannot convey. It has strong emotional associations, too; often linked with memory. Nothing brings back the past like a scent; nothing speaks so clearly and directly to the heart.
I once held a writing seminar in a women’s prison near my home. The women were all different ages and from wildly different backgrounds; at first I struggled to find a way to engage their creativity. Then I asked: ‘What smells do you miss?’ Each reply was a story. By the end of the day, I had poetry, short fiction, essays, letters to the dead. The next time I came, I brought perfume samples. In that sterile and utilitarian environment, each one was like an oasis.
Another time, a friend of mine suffered a stroke that left her completely paralysed, unable to speak or swallow. I knew she dreamed of food and drink, so I brought her the closest things I could find; fruit-scented lip salves from the Body Shop; pomegranate bath bombs from Lush; chocolate-scented lotions to rub into her hands and feet. On her birthday, I made her a virtual birthday cake – a cocktail of scents in a bottle. I used dark chocolate, Kahlua, cinnamon and black pepper. It was inedible, but smelt divine. She kept it by her bed for six months, until she was be able to eat again – in spite of her doctor’s prediction that this might never happen. Such is the positive power of scent and the energy it can harness.
I first became aware of perfumes through my great-aunt Marie, an elegant old Parisienne who had once known Chagall and Edith Piaf, and who, until the day she died, always dressed in pink and white, and never wore any perfume other than Chanel No 5. I remember the glass-stoppered bottle that stood on her dressing-room table, and the scent of impossible flowers, like something out of a distant dream. She was the one who taught me that scent is the oldest magic there is. A scent can change your identity; can bring back the ghosts of long-lost loves; can, like a fairy godmother, transform the most timid [continued over page]
'I remember the glass-stopped bottle on her dressing table, and the scent of impossible flowers - like something out of a distant dream'
[continued from previous page] of wallflowers into a heroine, just for a night. Chanel No 5 still brings her back, and she was the one who encouraged me to haunt perfume departments, to collect samples and bath oils, to discover the scents that would help me express my personality.
Nowadays, I tend to use scent much as I would my wardrobe. I have so many bottles that my husband bought me a cabinet as a gift, in which I keep all my perfume bottles, neatly arranged and ready to use. The top shelf is for gourmand fragrances, with their notes of gingerbread, vanilla, honey and chocolate. Thierry Mugler’s Angel, Rochas’ Tocade; Kurkdjian’s Absolue Pour le Soir. The second is for florals: Chanel No 19, Piguet’s Fracas, Lancôme Trésor, YSL’S Paris. The third, for herbal and citrus scents: Jo Malone’s Lime & Basil; Acqua di Parma Colonia. The bottom shelf is for orientals: Guerlain’s Habit Rouge, Chanel Coromandel, Diptyque’s L’autre, the lovely creamy sandalwood of Chanel’s Bois des Iles.
Every morning, I choose a scent according to my mood: wistful, exuberant, romantic, brave. Some days, I look for an old friend; other days I need a breath of fresh air. When I’m writing a new book, I often choose a scent on behalf of my protagonist. I wear it much in the same way that method actors sometimes use scent to get into character. Vianne Rocher was Aqua di Parma; Blueeyedboy was l’heure Bleue; the seductive Zozie de l’alba was scented with Guerlain’s Habit Rouge. The book I’m writing now smells of a new Chanel perfume, Boy – a light and lovely unisex blend of lavender and vanilla, with which I’ve recently become more than a little obsessed.
For me, the most important aspect of attraction has always been about feeling good. There is a tangible radiance to wellbeing that no cosmetic can duplicate. That’s why I tend to give more thought to the scent I wear than to clothes or make-up, or even shoes. My wardrobe is made up of bottles, neatly lined up in my scent cabinet. Some are old friends; some, new discoveries. Each one fits me perfectly, tailored to my changing moods.
My little black dress is Coromandel; I wear it with heels and attitude. My sexy number is Bois des Iles, with its creamy sandalwood scent. Francis Kurkdjian’s Acqua Universalis is my favourite pair of jeans: almost, but not quite, unisex, fresh and informal and effortless. I wear Fracas when I want to turn heads – with its blast of tuberose, it’s my strapless Oscar frock. Yves Rocher’s Ispahan is the hippie dress I can’t bear to throw out; I still have half a bottle (it’s now sadly discontinued) that I wear on special occasions. Houbigant’s Chantilly is there for the mornings when I want to feel 16 again. I wore it throughout my teenage years, and it always takes me back.
At 52, whatever I wear, it’s getting less and less likely that people will say in all honesty: ‘You look fabulous.’ But very often people do say (as did a grumpy head porter on a recent trip to my old college, startled out of his apathy by a passing whiff of Guerlain’s Samsara): ‘You smell fabulous.’ Because beauty isn’t about how you look, but how you make other people feel. And whatever can make a head porter smile, on a dull Autumn day in Cambridge, is surely a power to conjure with.
THE WOMAN BEHIND THE WORDS
Published in over 50 countries, bestselling author Joanne Harris works from a shed in her garden – and buys far too much perfume.
'Every morning, I choose my scent according to my mood - wistful, exhuberant, romantic, brave...'