Standglass for 'Extrait Triple Opoponax' from the mid 1800s, white glass with clear ground facets, 16 x 7.5cm, NFA.18100, Norwegian Pharmacy Museum, Norway - CC BY-SA.
The Olfactif
17th August 2023
by Catherine Maxwell
Created at:
17th August 2023
Catherine Maxwell
[click to copy]
Standglass for 'Extrait Triple Opoponax' from the mid 1800s, white glass with clear ground facets, 16 x 7.5cm, NFA.18100, Norwegian Pharmacy Museum, Norway - CC BY-SA.

The second half of the nineteenth century in Victorian Britain saw the emergence of the olfactif, the cultivated individual with a refined sense of smell who particularly enjoyed seeking out, savouring, and describing pleasurable scents. Inaugurating this type was the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), arguably the founding father of the British aesthetic and decadent movements, whose olfactory sensibilities, pervasive in his poetry and prose, were then emulated by many literary successors including Walter Pater (1839-1894), John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), and Arthur Symons (1865-1945) who prided themselves on their sensitivity to fragrance. Previously a heightened sense of smell might be attributed to class and gentility or more conventionally to feminine sensitivity – women traditionally being regarded as more olfactorily responsive – but after 1860 it increasingly denotes the superior receptivity of the aesthete. While the best-known proponents of aestheticism and decadence are male, recent scholarship has identified women writers associated with both movements, many of whom also display the characteristics of the olfactif. These include the prose writer Vernon Lee (1856-1935), and poets such as Katharine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper (1862-1913) – the aunt and niece who wrote jointly under the name ‘Michael Field’ – A. Mary F. Robinson (1857-1944), and Amy Levy (1861-1889).

British writers before Swinburne had certainly been interested in the pleasurable nuances of smell, with the Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats showing a strong inclination for evocative atmospheric scents that exerted a strong influence on their successors. However, aestheticism, the leading Victorian intellectual and artistic movement associated with the cult of beauty and ‘art for art’s sake’ in the period 1860-1900, and its offshoot, decadence, which promotes a more problematic ‘strange beauty’ often connected to artifice, coincided with the rise and development of perfumery in Britain. Appreciating beauty in all in its sensory guises includes olfactory phenomena; indeed decadence, in the ascendent in the 1880s and 1890s, is the perfect partner for the artifice of the newly emergent modern perfume industry and its recently discovered synthetic fragrance materials (Maxwell, 2018). Language is key to the appreciation of scent and perfume. Countering the conventional view that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to express smell impressions adequately in language, literature – especially decadent and aesthetic literature – increasingly became perfume’s ally, as conveying its subtleties demands imaginative and sophisticated modes of expression that showcase a writer’s skill as well showcasing his or her own superior olfactory sensibilities. The rich sensory language of literary aestheticism and decadence is especially suited to meet this challenge with its writers often described as having a ‘perfumed’ or ‘scented’ style. Not all readers find aesthetic language congenial but those who are responsive or who acclimatize to it are likely to share an ‘aesthetic’ sensibility and enjoy sensory description, including olfactory impressions.


We have details of various bottled perfumes worn by Victorian olfactifs. Eau de cologne, lighter even than eau de toilette, was the most widely used Victorian bottled scent, being so prized for its tonic quality and as a therapeutic restorative for faintness that it was not really regarded as a perfume at all. It was favoured by the young Swinburne who recorded buying a bottle from the famous Farina shop in Cologne (Swinburne, 1959-62: 1. 2-3). Katharine Bradley mentions wearing Mühlens Rhine Violets, ‘Muguet des Bois and Rose Blanche’ by Legrand, and scents from one of the leading British perfumers Piesse and Lubin including Sweet Briar, Civet, Bergamot and Holy Basil (Maxwell, 2017: 206), these also featuring in ‘Sirenusa’, her sonnet about a blind perfume-smelling session that she and Edith Cooper playfully imposed on Charles Ricketts (Field, 1908: 160). Perfume was more unisex than it is now although Victorian male users were generally dandies or bohemians. While he regularly wore eau de cologne, Oscar Wilde tended to favour heavier florals such as white lilac (Wratislaw, 1979: 13) while Arthur Symons seemed to enjoy a range of perfumes including the heavily sensuous peau d'espagne, as well as modern synthetics such as lily of the valley, and white heliotrope, with the first and last of these inspiring self-consciously decadent lyrics (Symons, 1913: 46; 1895: 49).

There are trends and fashions in scent and perfume as in everything else and in the latter part of the nineteenth century we see a general shift from more delicate floral fragrance and fresh scents to heavier, more decadent perfumes. However certain floral scents remain constant throughout. Violet, an immensely popular Victorian scent, often identified as a refined feminine fragrance, has well-established associations with death, mourning, remembrance and memory, and a strong poetic heritage, accruing meaning through its various incarnations from Shakespeare through to Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson (Maxwell, 2017: 74-81). Beloved by Michael Field, the scented violet and its heritage inform ‘A Violet Bank’, an irregular sonnet of 1901 by Katharine Bradley that features Charles Ricketts (Field, 1908: 30). Tuberose, a flower with a much heavier scent connected with sexuality and dangerous pleasures, is fittingly the topic of decadent fin-de-siècle poems about a passion for a mistress by Theodore Wratislaw (‘Tuberose’ in Wratislaw, 1896: 30) and love between men by Mark André Raffalovich (1864-1934) (‘Tuberose and Meadowsweet’ in Raffalovich, 1885: 37-43). John Addington Symonds, an early apologist for homosexuality, disliked bottled perfume, preferring natural scents, but identifies the smell of hay with the sensual scent of young male bodies (Symonds, 2007: 10) while Lafcadio Hearn discusses the attractive smell of young people, especially young women, as parfum de jeunesse (Hearn, 1914a: 221-2). 

Tobacco, fragranced with spices, essential oils, and animalic tinctures of musk, civet or ambergris, was another hugely popular Victorian scented product. Although some olfactifs like Swinburne could not bear the smell of tobacco, enthusiastic pipe smokers included Symonds, Hearn, Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), and Arthur Machen. Pater apparently smoked cigarettes, more the choice of dandies and bohemian men about town like Symons and Wilde, with Wilde known to smoke opium cigarettes (Maxwell, 2022a) like his own Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray (Wilde, 2007: 6).A sign of the emancipated ‘new women’, cigarettes were also enjoyed by Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper (Maxwell, 2017: 239), and Vernon Lee who found that ‘it agrees with my work’ (Lee, 2017: 1. 545).

Specific smells are both positively and negatively attributed to texts authored by aesthetic and decadent writers. Reading Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), Arthur Symons found that ‘An almost oppressive quiet – a quietness which seems to breathe of an atmosphere of heavy with tropical flowers – broods over these pages’ (Seiler, 1980: 177). Symons relished this scent, but conservative readers objected to ‘the heavy atmosphere of warm incense and slumbering artificial light’ in Wilde’s Dorian Gray (Beckson, 1970: 81), while John Addington Symonds, though intrigued by the novel, was disturbed by ‘the morbid & perfumed manner of treating such psychological subjects’ (Symonds, 1967-9: 3. 478).   

Places where olfactifs savour smells typically include outdoor spaces such as gardens and natural landscapes as well as indoor spaces such as dining-rooms, sitting-rooms, and bedrooms where flowers are displayed, incense and bought perfumes unfold, or where lovers enjoy the scents of the flesh. Swinburne, a lover of the sea, relishes marine scents in his poetry and prose while flower-lovers like Edith Cooper and Katharine Bradley describe the scents of their own much cherished garden (Maxwell, 2017: 93-4, 233, 235). While British olfactifs tend to focus on the scents experienced in their own country, some like Michael Field, Arthur Symons, and Oscar Wilde document their experiences of travel abroad with attendant smell sensations. Due to respiratory illness John Addington Symonds spent much of his later life in Switzerland where he revelled in alpine scents, though earlier he had also been an adventurous continental traveller. Vernon Lee as a child lived in many different European localities and continued to travel widely as an adult. In their essays of travel, both Symonds and Lee have a particular interest in identifying scents that help capture the atmospheric ‘genius loci’ or spirit of a place. Observing the characteristic blossoming brushwood thickets of Corsica, Symonds notes that ‘the scent of their multitudinous blossoms is so strong that it may be smelt miles out to sea’ (Symonds, 1874: 25.) Vernon Lee writes of Arquà in Padua: ‘as we walked down the steep stony street of Arquà there arose, summing up all that impression of southern simplicity and grace, the smell, the sweetest surely of nature's many kinds of incense, of burning olive-twigs’ (Lee, 1914: 187).

A different cosmopolitan experience is offered by Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), part Anglo-Irish part Greek, deeply influenced by British aestheticism, who spent the first part of his adult life in New Orleans and the French West Indies before finally moving to Japan, and whose writings vividly convey these different smellscapes. The Welsh writer Arthur Machen (1863-1947) details the natural scents of his homeland, although in his novel The Hill of Dreams (1907) his hero Lucian Taylor imaginatively recreates and inhabits ‘Siluria’, a former Roman settlement complete with an idealized aura of exotic scents (Machen, 2018: 110-250; Maxwell 2022b: 35-7). The more noisome smells of city streets – the ‘fog and filth of London’ (Swinburne, 1959-62: 3. 36) – are actively avoided by olfactifs, though in the literature of travel may occasionally contribute to the mix that provides a location’s smell signature along with the more acceptable odours of other urban spaces such as theatres and churches.


In the second half of the nineteenth century a steadily growing range of perfumes might be purchased from chemists and, increasingly, from the large new city department stores. However, advertisements for perfume and other scented goods frequently found in Victorian magazines and journals during this period and the availability of mail order meant that such goods were not restricted to metropolitan consumers. Advice and etiquette manuals advised that perfume should be discreet and should worn predominantly on the handkerchief rather than the skin. A lady’s clothes might also be delicately scented using fragrant sachets. However, the rules were not necessarily observed, and actual practices might vary. Although heavier perfumes like frangipani, patchouli, and opopanax were supposedly worn by less respectable women, the huge popularity of opopanax suggest that it had a much wider appeal. At the same time there is undoubtedly a well-established pattern whereby elite perfumes like the once high-class patchouli became debased by their greater availability and affordability (Maxwell 2017, 29-34, 308). Sprays, in vogue by the 1890s, also suggest that habits of perfume wearers were changing, with the young poet Theodore Wratislaw observing Oscar Wilde spraying himself with perfume (Wratislaw, 1979: 13). For the aspirational lower classes, scented soap and sachets, although still luxury products, were cheaper than bottled perfume, and by the 1890s the smallest bottles of various branded perfumes might be purchased for just over a shilling.

Standglass for 'Extrait Triple Opoponax' from the mid 1800s, white glass with clear ground facets, 16 x 7.5cm, NFA.18100, Norwegian Pharmacy Museum, Norway - CC BY-SA.

Ladies might wear a decorative and fragrant floral corsage or carry a small bouquet of scented flowers at balls and dinner parties, while gentleman, conventionally bound to a uniform dark attire, might break up the monotony by wearing a scented buttonhole, often of violets or carnation, both regularly sported by Oscar Wilde, who was also famous for wearing carnations dyed green (Maxwell, 2017: 252). Buttonholes might be bought from a street seller for a few pence or purchased at a higher price from a florist. Fragrant flowers could also be purchased for home decoration or sent as gifts, though gardening or the superintendence of gardens was a respectable pastime for middle and upper-class women who would select their own flowers for arrangement in the home or who might make pot pourri from scented petals and leaves. The gathering of wildflowers by women was another popular shared activity – Vernon Lee would often enjoy collecting flowers with a chosen female friend (Maxwell, 2021: 192). Some scented flowers like narcissus or violets, once collected, might be kept and pressed as sentimental keepsakes or exchanged in sentimental letters. Artificial flowers might also be scented, along with other objects that might be give a fragrance to the wearer such as buttons, scented ribbon that could be sewn into clothes and jewellery (Maxwell, 2017: 34). Katharine Bradley writes a sonnet about the splendid aromatic ‘Sabbatai Ring’ Charles Ricketts designed for her; its bezel took the form of a miniature gold mosque whose ‘doors are to be smeared with ambergris’ (Field, 2002: 177).

Smoking was traditionally a male pursuit with public-houses and music-halls scent-marked as spaces unsuitable for ladies. Tobacco smoke was supposedly offensive to ladies, so in the home, men of means retired to a smoking room where they might don special smoking caps and jackets to protect their usual clothes from odours (Marković, 2021). Emancipated women writers who took up smoking were, like Edith Cooper, were sometimes shy of smoking in male company, though others like the originally diffident Vernon Lee, quickly lost their reserve as smoking among women became more commonplace. Incense in the form of impregnated ribbon or aromatic pastilles, often used to fragrance a room and banish tobacco odours, was widely available from perfumers like Rimmel and Piesse and Lubin. Bradley and Cooper and Walter Pater seem to have enjoyed burning incense, as did Wilde and his hero Dorian Gray. Conservative types might regard incense as suspicious, savouring of Eastern exoticism and laxity or the dubious ‘Popish’ practices of Catholic or Anglo-Catholic church services with their ornate rituals.  Nonetheless the ecclesiastical ‘fuming censers’ were enjoyed by olfactifs with religious leanings such as Lionel Johnson, Pater, and Wilde (Maxwell, 2022a: 528-9), though Wilde’s habit of meeting men in dubious premises where incense was burned went down badly at his trials (Maxwell, 2017: 248).

Sexual contact also allows for the olfactif’s appreciation of body scents. John Addington’s written accounts of his trysts with soldiers and young Swiss peasants finds him waxing lyrical about the hay-like scent of male perspiration (Symonds, 2007: 10). Poems by male bohemians and men about town like Arthur Symons and Theodore Wratislaw note the perfumes such as patchouli and opopanax worn by good-time girls to allure (Symons, 1894: 45; Wratislaw, 1893: 36), while Lafcadio Hearn, who regularly bought sex from female prostitutes in New Orleans and Japan, imputed a natural fragrant odour to young women’s hair and skin (Hearn, 1914b: 166-7).

Feelings and Noses
The olfactif is a highly refined kind of ‘nose’, not dissimilar to the kind of professional ‘nose’ who is a perfumer, chef, sommelier, or makes a business out of commenting on perfume, food, or wine. Such professional noses, although able to perform apparently extraordinary feats of identification and description, will often insist that their abilities are a matter of training, smell awareness being ordinarily neglected. Perfumers required to master a repertoire of different scents are encouraged to build smell memory by recording their impressions in writing and thus develop a comprehensive expressive vocabulary (Maxwell, 2017: 7-8). The olfactif is at home in language, usually has literature as a profession, and is frequently of independent means. However, he or she tends to use smell sensitivity as a badge of distinction and a mark of elite culture. Perfume elevates the sense of smell away from mere practical concerns to a higher-level of experience that represents the triumph of pleasure over necessity. The pursuit and contemplative appreciation of perfume, whether in the form of manufactured fragrance or in the guise of cultivated or wild flowers, signifies a lifestyle that at the very least allows for some leisure and modest luxury.

The appreciation of rare and elusive odours such the scent of dying strawberry leaves, supposedly a former marker of gentility, is claimed by both Swinburne and Symonds as a mark of implicit aesthetic sensibility (Maxwell, 2017: 53). Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper admiringly record how their friend, the aesthete Charles Ricketts, a painter and essayist, ‘speaks eloquently of the fragrance of snow’ while the smell of a maidenhair fern ‘is that of gauze–& reminds him of a certain bluish veil worn by an aunt of his–& of veils generally in the seventies’ (Maxwell, 2017: 217). Walter Pater declared that certain flower scents ‘affected his own imagination so keenly that he could not smell them with pleasure’ and that certain heavy white flower scents ‘actually gave him pain’ (Sharp, 1894: 119), while Oscar Wilde, who enjoyed wearing some of those heavy scents, was anxious on leaving prison to restore his customary perfume aura, an essential part of his urbane identity, instructing his friend More Adey to buy him scented soap and perfume (Wilde, 2000: 809). In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890, 1891), Wilde’s eponymous hero is an aesthetic olfactif who, imitating the wealthy connoisseur hero Des Esseintes of J. K. Huysmans’s A rebours (Against Nature, 1884), spends time pondering the emotional effects engendered by different perfume odours. The novel reflects Wilde’s sensitivity to smell, being suffused with scent imagery in which perfume, unseen though pervasive, becomes a potent figure for influence. Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian’s ‘Bad Angel’, finds ‘joy’ in the thought of ‘convey[ing] one’s temperament into another although it was a subtle fluid or a strange perfume’ (Wilde, 2007: 34).

Smell famously triggers memory, a theme embraced by many literary olfactifs in their poetry and prose. The scent of violets is one of the most potent of these triggers ­– for Wilde’s Dorian Gray it ‘woke the memory of dead romances’, although elsewhere in the same novel Lord Henry Wotton attributes a mnemonic power to ‘the odour of lilas blanc’ (Wilde, 2007: 179) .This was originally ‘heliotrope’ in the earlier 1890 Lippincott’s Magazine version of Wilde’s novel (Wilde, 2007: 298), a possible spur to Arthur Symons’s later lyric ‘White Heliotrope’ in which a bohemian speaker wonders if the smell of that perfume, associated with a one-night stand, will provoke memories of the experience in the future (Symons, 1895: 49). Vernon Lee’s prose is especially eloquent about the links between smell and memory, with scents sparking nostalgia for places and experiences encountered in the past (Maxwell, 2021). She observes how the poignant emotion roused by place ‘is largely a matter of smells’, adding, ‘Not merely because smells have that unrivalled power of evoking past states of feeling, but because smells seem to distil and volatilise so many undefinable peculiarities of season, of climate, and of civilisation’ (Lee, 1914: 150). Smell memory thus also links powerfully to emotions of joy and melancholy as the olfactif recalls experiences of pleasure or pain, as well as regret or yearning for things no longer present. For Lee, rereading a book may activate a memory of the smells experienced when it was first read, but texts also have their own imagined scent essence, released by a subsequent re-perusal. (Lee, 1904: 40) Love tokens in the form of preserved flowers might similarly trigger an emotionally loaded perfume memory long after the original fragrance has vanished.

Just as lovers give gifts of scented flowers to their loved ones, so poets dedicate poems about fragrance to the objects of their affection. Edmund Gosse’s sonnet ‘Perfume’ (1873) suggests that a range of perfume substances – spices, natural resins, herbal smells, aromatic tobacco, rose leaves, and rose essential oil – is a better gift for a passionate lover than flowers or poetry books (Gosse, 1873: 96). In Wild Honey from Various Thyme (1908), Katharine Bradley includes poems featuring scent such as ‘Onycha’ and ‘Sweet-briar in Rose’ which celebrate her love for her partner Edith Cooper while sonnets exploring various scents including mint, sweet-basil, and myrrh honour her undeclared love for Charles Ricketts, her male muse (Field, 1908: 14, 174, 11, 20, 27). A. Mary F. Robinson writes a lyric about a fragrant narcissus that inaugurates her relationship with Vernon Lee (Robinson, 1882: 186), while other poems about scented plants communicate different facets of her romantic feelings (for example, Robinson 1882: 179-81; 1884, 111-17). More explicitly scent permeates and heightens emotion in poems of sexual attraction and desire from Swinburne’s ‘Laus Veneris’ (Swinburne, 2000: 3-22) through to explorations of the heterosexual demi-monde by Symons and Wratislaw. Mark André Raffalovich portrays love and sexual passion between men often using the motifs of scented flowers in his collection Tuberose and Meadowsweet (1885).

Catherine Maxwell
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