Wednesday, 25 September 2013
Smells in novels ~ but not much in Jane Austen
Smell is one of the senses we are told to use when writing a novel, and I totally agree; what can be more evocative than the smell of the sea, or honeysuckle, or a sudden whiff of the aftershave used by a long-departed boyfriend? But in the middle of the night when I should have been sleeping I had a revelation - there are very few mentions of what things smell like in Jane Austen's novels. This from Emma is par for the course:
Never had the exquisite sight, smell, sensation of nature, tranquil, warm, and brilliant after a storm, been more attractive to her.
There must be a reason for this. Smells must have been very different in Jane Austen's day, and I wonder if it was not thought genteel to comment on them.
We are somewhat smug these days about smell - after all, London smells of cars, a mixture of exhaust, tyre particles and petrol, and before owners were compelled to pick up after their dogs, on a hot day Hyde Park had a distinct reek of dog excrement. When my daughter was small I remember constantly trying to stop her accidentally treading in it on the pavement. My workshop is in Hoxton, an area with a vibrant nightlife, and while women seem able to wait to get home to have a pee, many men don't. But it's unarguable that we wash more than the people in Regency times, simply because it's much easier for us to keep clean with running hot water, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, electric toothbrushes and deodorant. So when Jane Austen describes a ball, we can only imagine the smells as the room got warmer and dancers more heated. She is not going to mention them.
How fortunate for us we live in less correct times and are allowed to describe everything our senses record. Any writers reading this are welcome to post a brief extract from their novels that deals with smells, nice or nasty.
Posted by Lexi at Wednesday, September 25, 2013