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.


  1. Porto Maurizio basked in glorious sunshine as Laurent stepped from the station. Church bells chimed a gentle 11:30am from Imperia's surrounding hillsides, a subtle backdrop to the cacophony of foreground traffic. The aroma of nearby cooking, sea air, plants and diesel fumes mingled in a way that impressed upon his senses. The smell was strangely vivid, yet unusual and fascinating. He had very definitely arrived in Italy. -- an extract from Sirene by Andrew Ives

  2. Aha, the smell of a foreign country. I really should travel more...

    Thank you, Andrew 24th of that ilk.

  3. I cannot think offhand of evoking the sense of smell in my prose, other than in a travel article about Taiwan. I said that place engaged all the senses but especially smell, since one was never far from either incense or Chinese cooking.

    However, smell is a critical factor in a novel I reviewed here:

    (I'm no expert on Austen's era. Thought the Victorians were most famous for denying the more physical aspects of life. But maybe the trend was already under way in her time.)

  4. Your review does make Agent to the Stars sound interesting. I think it was George Orwell who said it is not possible to like someone who smells.

    I think polite society was very polite in Regency times...

  5. I wonder if people in Austen's time simply had different conditioning - they would have been around more smells all of their lives and it might not have been quite so offputting to them.

    As far as writing, it seems to me that smells, aromas are one of the more difficult things to evoke in prose. It's so bodily. The Ives excerpt provided above is effective, but it seems to me that smells are often overlooked, for a reason.

  6. You mean like we take traffic smells for granted, and used to accept a thick fug of cigarette smoke in cinemas and at parties?

    I'm not sure I agree that smells are difficult to describe, as the writer only needs to nudge the reader in the right direction for her imagination and memory to take over.

  7. Firework smoke drifted, filing the air with its stink. Someone moaned. He looked down. His arm was sheeted with gore. His fingers twitched, seemed to work. He looked up, blinked. The shorter man ran out of the door. The other paused, pulled a fresh magazine out of his pocket, reloaded his pistol, glanced around, stared at Dac. Someone sobbed, loudly. His hand shook, dribbling blood. There was another crash as something toppled. Bastards. A man tried to crawl out from behind an overturned table, then collapsed onto the bloody floor.

  8. Now fight scenes are difficult. I'm working on one right now. Yours is good.

    Being in the UK I have to look up everything about guns and so all my info is second hand. No chance of firing a friend's gun to get a feel for what it's like.

  9. The one quote of smell I know comes from Frasier. He brings Daphne to a very exclusive/snobby club.

    Daphne (entering the very luxurious club): What's that smell Dr Crane?
    Frasier (sniffing the air): That's power...


    Take care

  10. Kitty, I have the entire boxed set of Frasier and I can't remember that incident. Clearly, I will have to watch again from the beginning.

    I recall reading that a lot of people enjoy breathing in the smell of their cat's fur. Could you tell the difference between Charlie and Gumtree in a blind sniffing?

  11. Oh, the tin bathroom stuck on the back of my hut in the jungles of Malaysia that smelled of cabbage ... the incense in temples in India so strong it made my eyes water ... the spice market in Cochin ... drains in KL ... tiger poo in the wilds of Nepal ... *sighs*

  12. Jo, I can tell you've travelled a little :o)

  13. Lexi, either you are psychic, or your above post is a reaction to the thread in the Janeites yahoogroup or the Austen-L listserv, which was begun by Diana Birchall, and then was picked up and extended by me, regarding Diana's suggestion that Lizzy Bennet gets more than just dirt and mud on her petticoats when she walks to Netherfield to see Jane, i.e., she acquires a deep coating of some organic matter that has a strong smell!

    Here is a link to my own blog post summarizing that thread:

    What do you think? I'd suggest to you that there are lots of references to smell in Jane Austen's novels, if you know how to read her textual tea leaves!

    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

  14. Arnie, I hadn't seen your post till now.

    I don't agree with your conclusions. Bear in mind the exaggeration Miss Bingley would have used, the fact that it's possible to step round horse droppings just as one does round dog mess on a pavement, the fact that there was FAR more manure in the streets of London than in the country because of the many horse drawn carriages, and that 'dirt' is used as a synonym for 'earth'.

    Elizabeth would have lifted her hem to avoid the worst of the mud, like any sensible person. I don't for a moment believe she brought a nasty smell in with her.

  15. Lexi, don't you agree that is a remarkable coincidence that you chose to write about sense of smell later in the same day that the very same topic was raised in those two groups?

    Anyway, you only responded re Jane Bennet in P&P, but did you read the passages I also quoted from Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey where Jane Austen expands on the joke of "dirt" as substitute for "s-t"? It's more obvious there, especially Edward Ferrars's sly joke: "Those bottoms must be dirty"

  16. Ah well, I am slightly psychic in a useless way - it crops up now and then, but never with anything useful like numbers to win the lottery.

    And that does seem rather a lame 'joke' - if indeed you can call it that; it's more of a nudge nudge aren't I being risqué - for someone as witty as Jane Austen. You're not convincing me at all.

  17. I don't think it was lame at all, I think one of the hardships she bore as a woman without independent means was that she could not go anywhere unless she walked, or she managed to get a ride from a male family member. So it really irritated her that on top of that hardship, when she had to walk, there was all this s-t around on the roads from the horses!

    Not a lame joke at all, it was serious for her and for all women in her situation.

  18. I think you are overestimating the number of horses kept in a rural town, and underestimating man's ingenuity in dealing with problems.

    We may just have to disagree on this topic.

  19. I agree, let's leave it at that, thanks for engaging with me on this point!

  20. You've made me go and count, Lexi, how many times smell is mentioned in Hide in Time. 17 times, mostly by each time traveller noticing the difference in smell from one century to another.

    As suggested, here's an excerpt from Laura who returns to the 19th century after living in the 21st for some time. It's about your very own London town.

    "She’d had to rest in the high-backed chair by the grate and all the offensive smells and night-time sounds of London poured through the half open window."

    In the 19th century the poor had foul-smelling tallow candles and the rich had sweet beeswax. That alone would spur me to rise up the social ranks.

  21. The offensive smells and night-time sounds of London... Yes! In my youth an ancient cabbie told me that horses and carriages were much noisier than cars.

    One smell that is relatively new in modern London is the smell of recycling. I never used to notice the smell of rubbish, unless cycling behind a refuse truck. I'm sure that's why there are so many flies around these days.

  22. How right you are! It's 'dustbin day' tomorrow where I live and walking along the roads I could smell rubbish. Everyone has their wheelie bins out (some have three) and they have closed lids, but I sniffed the air in disbelief. I've never noticed it before.

  23. Lexi, I had not intended to return with more, but then I realized something siginficant, and so here is another blog post link, this one re the horrible stench in Bath that Jane Austen depicted in Northanger Abbey AND Persuasion, in which she used the word "dirt" as code for "poop":

  24. Good heavens, you lot are as bad as conspiracy theorists! I've now read that post too, and you have no evidence whatsoever that Jane Austen, when writing 'dirt' was using it as a sly code for 'shit'. Seems to me it's just a neat idea you have got hold of and can't bear to let go.