Image: Brijesh Patel
February 15 2012
“A scented candle from someone you’re close to is always offensively unimaginative.” So said Jemima Khan, shortly before Christmas, lighting the pomegranate-and-orange-blossom-fragranced touchpaper of an explosive public debate that has raged throughout the perfumed drawing rooms and the sweet-smelling parlours of London’s haute bourgeoisie. Indeed, the detonation of this (aromatic) bombshell is still resonating around London, challenging the odiferous warp and olfactory weft of our way of life.
I dare say that angry scented-candle-makers are picketing Khan’s house at this moment, or at the very least mounting a (scented) candle-lit vigil outside the Houses of Parliament, where no doubt they are doing their best to make the peace camp a little more fragrant.
I do not know whether to feel sorry for Jemima or to join the horde of affronted scented-candle users, givers and re-gifters. As soon as I learnt of her comment, I was fired with a burning bergamot-and-sandalwood-scented desire to right this wrong. Her comment appeared in Prospect magazine – the soi-disant “perfect gift for the curious mind” – and I suppose it serves me right for reading seditious literature; after all, curiosity did not do much for the cat. But I also felt protective towards Jemima because I like to support the underdog and generally act the contrapuntalist.
I felt that in making this heedless remark, she was driving a stiletto into the very heart of our secular, consumer-based way of life. I happen to believe that the scented candle, along with – as Clairee Belcher memorably observed in the film Steel Magnolias – our ability to accessorise, is one of the few things that separates us from the animals.
After all, smell is the most evocative and elusive of senses. Words can be captured on a page. Sound, too, can be recorded or written down. The world we see around us can be preserved in paintings, and frozen for ever in photographs. Fragrance, however, is a riddle. An idea as much as a sensation, it awakens memory, arouses the senses, stimulates the emotions and then, invisible, inaudible and untouchable, it evanesces.
Since Egyptian days, the fragrant smoke of burning incense has been used by hierophants as a medium of communication with the gods, and religious rituals across the world are still performed in a sweet-smelling nimbus that, in mingling with incantation and music, provides a tantalising sense of the divine.
In the ancient world, walls and awnings in the homes of the wealthy were doused in perfumed preparations, slaves washed the feet of guests with perfumed unguents, while doves whose wings had been brushed with perfumed oils fragranced the feasts of the elite (who knows, perhaps the readers of Prospect would prefer to be given a scented dove rather than a scented candle). And when the time came, they began their journey into eternity in a billowing fog of incense. History has, of course, cast Nero as the sybarite-in-chief of the ancient world, and on the death of his wife Poppaea he broadcast his grief in suitably flamboyant style. According to Suetonius, the funerary celebrations consumed more incense than Arabia could produce in a decade.
Given that exact production figures from the period are notoriously hard to pin down, Suetonius is most likely exaggerating for the benefit of posterity, but in identifying the source of the perfume as the semi-mythical land of Arabia, he casts it in an exotic otherworldly light. For after the fall of Rome and the passing of the Dark Ages, it was from “Arabia” that Europe would once again learn the pleasures of olfaction.
The perfumers of Moorish Spain, trade through the rich city state of Venice, and centuries of crusading that brought Europeans into contact with Arab culture all gradually reawakened Europe’s sense of smell, as the courts and nobility began to experiment with perfume.
In Renaissance Europe, before the strands of medicine, magic, science and the supernatural were disentangled, perfumery was a part of the art of alchemists and physicians, who used the precious ingredients and essences as palliative medicines. An active perfume culture was a sign of a cultured and sophisticated court: when Catherine de Medici married Henri II of France, she brought a perfumer as part of her dowry.
In short, the entire sweep of western history can be discerned in those small glass beakers of perfumed wax that cast their fragrant light over numberless homes. Moreover, as the materialistic high tide of the festive season recedes and we are left with a beachful of residual trinketry – humorously patterned neckwear, inappropriate socks, sundry other specially, but not always entirely successfully, personalised gift items – alone among this alluvial deposit of loot stands the scented candle: a small, flickering, fragrant beacon of compact, disposable pleasantness.