by Helen Currie Foster
Even just thinking of certain smells can yank me straight back to childhood. Oil paints? Mama working on her first portrait. Jello chocolate pudding mix? My sister standing on a chair, eyebrows level with the gas flame, stirring a saucepanful for us to share. A little chlorine? Joyous summer afternoon at Northwest Park pool.
Mindful that writers use sensory images to make a page come alive, I had a mission––locate smells. I pulled books off the shelf.
Of course I went first to my personal favorite, To the Lighthouse (1927), sure that the brilliant descriptions of the island, of time passing, would include smell. I found nothing until page 19 (the wind “drew from the long frilled strips of seaweed pinned to the wall a smell of salt and weeds…”). Finally, on page 33, Lily Briscoe describes William Bankes (“a widower, smelling of soap, very scrupulous and clean”). We know just from the soap that nothing will come of this relationship.
Lonesome Dove. Chapters One-Two: vivid visual images, great dialogue, descriptions of food (beans)––but no smell until Chapter Three when Lorena observes, looking across the river at Mexico, “…it didn’t look any more interesting than Texas, and the men stunk just as bad as Texans, if not worse.” “Stunk.” Not much, but it gets the point across.
Treasure Island (1882). Chapters One-Two: scary characters, scars, blood, cutlasses and rum––but no smell until Chapter Three when the captain “put his nose out of doors to smell the sea….”
Maybe Victorian/post-Victorian writers were loath to mention bodily smells. However, the smell of the sea seems to be all right. Considering how repugnant Virginia Woolf (at least initially) found Ulysses (1914) when it first appeared, I checked Chapter One and found Stephen Dedalus’s famous dream of his dead mother, who begged him to kneel and pray at her deathbed, but he refused:
Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes.
Well. That’s strong.
Kim (1901): thankfully, in Kipling’s colorful description of Delhi during the Raj, Kim meets the lama from the far-off Himalayas:
He was old, and his woollen gaberdine still reeked of the stinking artemisia of the mountain passes.
Now we see the lama, high above the plains, striding through the mountains. And we smell that artemisia.
The Sound and the Fury (1929). Faulkner gives us Benjy, waiting with his caretaker Versh for his big sister Caddy:
I couldn’t feel the gate at all, but I could smell the bright cold.
“You better put them hands back in your pockets.”
“Hello, Benjy.” Caddy said.
She opened the gate and came in and stooped down. Caddy smelled like leaves.
Later Benjy adds “Caddy smelled like trees.” With all we later hear of Caddy, we won’t forget that she smelled like leaves, like trees.
At this point I’d concluded that despite all the big talk about writers appealing to our senses, smells are sparsely put about. Visual imagery: everywhere. Sure, Proust included taste, dipping his famous madeleine into tea. But smell? Well, it’s powerful when used…which seems sparing.
Except in some mysteries. Not every mystery. Take Dorothy Sayers. Her Gaudy Night begins with protagonist Harriet Vane, recently exonerated of murder charges in Strong Poison, setting out for an Oxford class reunion, and searching for her academic robe:
She dragged out an ancient trunk, unlocked it and flung back the lid. A close, cold odor.
I found little more, but that one phrase suggested Vane’s bitter history and, in a way, her take on the plot to come.
For more extensive use, consider Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan (1951), where the theatre and some characters are rich with odor. Nineteen-year-old Martyn Tarne arrives by ship from New Zealand, hoping to act in London, but loses her travelers cheques. On a rainy evening, exhausted and hungry, she accidentally lands a job as dresser to Helena Hamilton, lead actress at the Vulcan, where Martyn’s permitted to spend the night:
She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp and facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.
She meets Helena Hamilton, her employer:
…she was only vaguely aware of a fragrance in the air and a new voice in the passage. The next moment her employer came into the dressing room.
…It took Martyn a moment or two to realize that this was her cue to remove Miss Hamilton’s coat. She lifted it from her shoulders––it was made of Persian lamb and smelt delicious––and hung it up.
Then she meets Hamilton’s actor husband, a middle-aged, handsome man with a raffish face. “He went out, leaving a faint rumour of alcohol behind him.”
As to the theater dogsbody, Jacko, to Martyn “he smelt of toothpaste and nicotine.”
Only a few of Marsh’s characters identify themselves to Martyn as distinctive fragrances. For instance, Helena Hamilton’s unique, expensive and “delicious” fragrance matches her talent. But scent is key to Marsh’s setting. Martyn’s encounters with the smells of the Vulcan––naphthalene and plush, dressing rooms with their banks of flowers, greasepaint and cosmetics––make the entire building come alive for us.
Smells. They’re stored in our individual attics as powerful yet faint and fleeting memories of a specific moment, a specific place. Maybe smells are, and should be, used sparingly because of their immediacy. Marsh is stingy: Helena isn’t “tagged” with fragrance; it doesn’t appear and reappear, page after page. It’s shared with us as part of Martyn’s first impression of the character.
Writers repeat for characters their visual tags (the hat, the eyebrows, the frown) and their dialogue and voice tags (“Whatever you say, dear”). In contrast, in creating character and scene, perhaps smells call for restraint or subtlety. “Caddy smelled like leaves.” We know what that means, though we don’t know exactly what it smells like. We can supply our own memory there, our own leaves, and the sense of the smell belongs to us immediately.
Have you ever opened a box, a closet, containing the stored possessions of someone you love, and found that the first whiff reminds you…and then disappears? We can’t on demand repeat the impact of the stored memory of smell. Like a first impression, smells are permanently stored in the memory attic, but not reliably accessible. In fact, words can’t readily capture certain smells. I’ve tried and failed to put into words the tender memory of the smell of my mother’s house. Words haven’t yet captured it. Was it compounded of specific elements, like floor wax, bath powder, books, cooking? Naah. That doesn’t work.
Talking about this with my brother, he agreed that actual smells can be “keys straight into the lock of memory but are very difficult to describe unless they’re well known and simply identified: lavender, diesel exhaust, bacon.” He said, “I do like it when the writer tries, though!”
He added that one of his favorite smells is the smell of a child running in from play outside in the cool evening. Well, I can’t think of words to describe exactly what that child smells like, but the description––the child running in from play outside in the cool evening––opened a key in my own memory cabinet. I knew that smell when he described it.
Maybe writers are sparing with this, our most primitive and sensitive sense, because it’s hard to find the exact description for certain smells in, say, the writer’s memory cabinet. Yet it’s possible to convey the sense of that smell to a reader. And we do “like it when the writer tries”!
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.
Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.