When historical novelists try to the capture the past for readers, they have to skilfully manipulate the senses. Dress looked different, speech sounded different, food tasted different. But I think the change we’d notice most, coming from the 21st century, would be the smell.
Let’s face it: our characters were stinky. For the most part, their fellows wouldn’t notice it, being in an equal state of uncleanliness. Who knows, perhaps they would think a freshly bathed person smelt strange, since they weren’t used to it. In general, it was only the hands, face and sometimes the feet and personal areas that were washed everyday. Full immersion in water was rare, as was laundering the heavy, expensive materials that made up court dress. For the most part, they would have been packed away with herbs in hopes of keeping both smells and parasites away. I’m in a unique position at the moment, writing about Caroline of Ansbach, who was a frequent bather. Some contemporaries found her washing excessive and blamed her of putting her health at risk. As someone so careful of her own hygiene, she must have been particularly sensitive to smells. It therefore beholds me, when I’m writing from her point of view, to understand the olfactory world in which she lived.
I recently attended a workshop at Historic Royal Palaces called Fragrances of the Georgian Court, lead by Tanya Moulding. Tanya fully earned her title of “The Perfume Mistress”, opening our nostrils to a whole new world. I get the feeling some of my classmates didn’t enjoy sampling the unpleasant side of the court smells quite as much as I did – of course, they were repugnant, but I need to write about them, so I was sniffing to my heart’s content. I always prefer it in historical fiction when heroes are ascribed realistic scents, such as horses, sweat and leather than fresh lye soap and cologne. Yes, gentlemen of the court, particularly in the Regency period, may have used heavy feminine scents – but we have to remember this was screening something muskier and altogether less sweet beneath.
In particular, London was little better than an open sewer. With everything from human waste to rotting animal carcasses in the kennel, there was also the heaving, poisonous Thames. Although it hadn’t yet reached the proportions that would lead to “The Great Stink” in Victorian times, the odours that the river carried with it would have been sharp and pungent. Think rotting fish and plant matter and you’ll start to get an idea. To help recreate these smells for us, Tanya made concoctions featuring the stale, acidic scents of civet and castoreum . Both these come from the anal glands of animals – cats and beavers respectively – and were certainly stinky. What is surprising, however, is that these aromas were sometimes used as base notes in fragrances of the time – apparently, some people relished the warm musky quality at the heart of these animal scents.
So, how to mask all this unpleasantness without a can of modern-day Febreeze? Well, firstly there was the Royal Herb Strewer. Although the role became more ceremonial as the Georgian age progressed, this busy figure would have been wafting her way around the court, trying her best to sweeten the air. The herbs she would lay amongst rushes and sometimes straw would depend, firstly, on the nature of the floor – no ruining expensive Turkey carpets! – and then the use of that room. For example, southernwood or wormwood was considered to be an aphrodisiac and may well have circled the royal bed. To repel insects, chamomile, lavender, penny royal and rosemary would have come to the fore. Another lovely little gem was sweetflag – it smelt fatty and almost cinammony, with a seductive quality about it. So much for the rooms But what did the people use to hide their own bodily odour?
Pomanders and scented gloves were dropping out of fashion, but everything from the pomade to the face powder of the Georgian toilette would have carried a scent. Men might favour spicier aromas such as clove, cinnamon and nutmeg, while women went for header notes of orange and rose. At Tanya’s workshop, we were given some of the following scents to sample and use to make our own Georgian inspired perfume. I wrote down my thoughts and descriptive words as I sniffed – you may well find these descriptions in some of my books now! – but I thought I would share them with you.
Top Notes – mainly citrus and sweet
- Orange – As you would expect, sweet and zesty
- Grapefruit – Like orange, but juicier and less overpowering
- Lime – Fresh and sharp
- Bitter orange – This one smelt like Christmas. Think orange peel, a deeper smell with a decided tang
- Bergamont – A green smell, more delicate in nature than the others
Middle Notes – Flowers, herbs and spices
- Lavender – Always a favourite of mine, powdery and soothing.
- Jasmine – Delicious and heady but sickly sweet
- Rose Otto – I’ll go into more detail on this later, but Rose Otto is not the same as a simple rose scent. It is deeper, slightly less floral and has notes of honey and wax to it.
- Orange blossom – This didn’t smell like I thought it would. I expected the zing of the original orange, but this was less zesty and more musky
- Geranium – Surprisingly unlike the geraniums I sniff in my mum’s garden. Minty and peppery.
- Rosemary – Lemony, a little peppery. It has a very strong undertone and screams “I am a herb!” Again, this oil smelt different from the fresh rosemary you would crush in your hands to get the scent of.
- Violet leaf – A wet scent, putting me in mind of leaves after a downpour.
- Black pepper – Smokey and chocolatey, this was another scent famed as an aphrodisiac.
Base notes – Woods and resins
- Cedarwood – there were two varieties of the cedarwood, but the one I smelt reminded me of wax and leather. It had a watered-down sweetness to it.
- Frankincense – Musky and spicy with the merest hint of lemon. A smell that goes deep down into your nostrils.
- Benzoin – I loved this one! It smelt like caramel and alcohol, reminding me of liquers
- Vanilla – Creamy and smooth as always
- As described above, civet and castoreum were also an option, but they just reminded me too much of a kitty-litter tray.
For my own Georgian perfume, I wanted to get sweet scents throughout, nothing too floral. I find overly flowery perfumes don’t sit well on my skin – I’m better with vanillas and honeys. Tanya was on hand for advice throughout, and I started off with the following blend of my favourites:
Bergamont – 1 drop
Orange blossom – 4 drops
Lavender – 1 drop
Benzoin – 1 drop
Distilled in this way, the lavender wasn’t over-powering. While I like the smell, it has a tendency to sweep all others aside and that wasn’t what I wanted. Pleased with the results, I repeated the recipe to make it stronger. I still liked it, but wanted to add a touch more sweetness. Tanya recommended some mandarin. I added a drop of this and it worked, but something was still missing. There was a slight kick I needed that I couldn’t describe. I found myself sniffing the rose otto again and again. It’s another strong scent that claims its own ground and I was apprehensive of using it, lest I drown out all my hard work. Finally biting the bullet, I added just one drop. As I expected, it was a little too strong. By now my nose was accustomed to what would balance things out, and I added three drops of vanilla and another of mandarin and stirred . . . It was perfect! I had my own Georgian perfume, a mixture of seven very different scents that somehow combined together into something sweet, tangy and lightly floral all at once. For full Georgian effect, I will be wearing my new perfume when I appear dressed as a Georgian at the Festival of Romance in November. I’m hoping it will complement my orange blossom pomade and lavender hair powder – you’ll certainly smell me from a long way off!
Several members of the class had dizzy spells and needed to seek some air. In between sniffing, we were offered pots of freshly ground coffee to refresh the nostrils. I found myself thinking how overpowering it must have been to spend a day in the Georgian court. Not only would you have the nauseous smells turning your stomach, you would have all this fragrance fizzing in your brain, trying to mask it but probably just blending with it. It made me wonder how people managed to breathe! The only modern comparison I can think of is being on the tube in summer in rush hour, with a group of people who forgot their deodorant, and letting a big bottle of Chanel Number 5 smash on the floor and puddle around your feet. Feeling faint? I know I am.
I promised you a little bit more about rose otto. I think the reason I was drawn to it was that it reminded me of the scent in Queen Caroline’s bathroom at Hampton Court. The best post I can refer you to about the Georgian rooms at Hampton Court is by the wonderful Brimstone Butterfly who has sadly passed away but continues to inspire me with her blog. I had always assumed the rose smell in Queen Caroline’s bathroom was added on purpose, but as you will read in the blog post, it seems to be something of a phenomenon that not all people can smell. Rosewater that seeped into the porous walls? Who knows? The funny thing is, the scent seems to travel. For me it is there on some days, not on others. On one trip to Hampton Court I could smell it the whole way through Queen Caroline’s private apartments, another only in the bathroom. The more superstitious suggest it is the dead queen’s lingering spirit. I can’t say I fully subscribe to this theory, but I can tell you of one rather odd thing that happened to me. I was visiting on a weekday and the apartments were practically deserted except for a few staff. I walked up and down again and again, taking notes and familiarising myself with the rooms and their order for my novel. No rose scent that day. I must have been there for the best part of an hour. Just as I walked up to the bedroom to make my final round, I said, rather sadly to myself, since there was no one nearby to think me a weirdo, “Oh, so you’re not with me today, then, Caroline?” Almost at once the smell of rose otto enveloped me, stronger than I had ever smelt it before. I wasn’t scared at all, but smiled. As I completed my last walk up and down the apartments, the scent lingered protectively around me and followed me all the way down to Fountain Court. Very strange, but I swear to you, entirely true. For this reason, rose otto will always be special to me.