Sunday, 30 November 2014

Guerlain Après L’Ondée and Virginia Woolf: who’s afraid of melancholy scents?

Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Christian Tonnis
The other day while messing about on Facebook I chanced across a link (see below) posted by Cheryl of Perfumed Letters to a little known recording of Virginia Woolf from 1937. In it the author speaks in the clipped, genteel tones you would associate with a member of The Bloomsbury Group about the mysterious mechanics of language and creative writing. I recommend in particular the section from about 4 minutes in, where Woolf describes words as 'irreclaimable vagabonds', and the mind as a 'fitfully illuminated cavern' in which they live. This discovery, coupled with my recent preoccupation with bathrooms(!), prompted me to feature this (slightly edited) post - which was originally published on Cafleurebon on 27.1.11 - on Bonkers. For anyone who remembers it from back then, some of the photos are also different(!), and there is the YouTube clip to enjoy. ;)


Some people believe in love at first sight.  I wouldn’t say I don’t believe in it exactly, but it has never happened to me.  In the context of fragrance, you occasionally hear of perfumistas having experienced a similar sort of 'coup de foudre' with a particular scent, changing forever the way they view perfume and incorporate it into their life.  Overnight fragrance goes from being a casual accessory to a second skin – or a third, fourth or even a  fifty-seventh skin, for those with large collections. 

I also experienced 'sudden onset perfume mania', but for me it was not so much a fragrance which triggered this epiphany, as a review of a fragrance, namely Hannah Betts’ 2005 article for The Times on 'glacial perfumes'.  She starts by quoting former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck’s comment about her heightened emotional response to narcissus absolute.

'Just a drop on each wrist and two in the bath were enough to send silver running down the walls. It set the world throbbing out of control when I wore it. I became a little weird.'

Photo courtesy of Linda Svendsen

Betts point outs that the sense of silver trickling down bathroom walls is all the more pronounced if the perfume already smells of silver – 'then walls course all the sooner'.  This leads her neatly into a discussion of her own favourite cool, metallic scents, namely Après L’Ondée and Hiris by Hermès, and how this effect is created by the use of orris butter, one of the most expensive perfumery materials of all, a creamy paste derived from the iris root.

Captivated by her review, I set about acquiring a sample of the first scent Betts had mentioned.   Après L’Ondée was created by Jacques Guerlain and released in 1906, with notes (from Now Smell This) of 'bergamot, neroli, aniseed, hawthorn, violet, heliotrope, iris and musk; there may also be carnation, rose, jasmine, vetiver and sandalwood.'

When I first smelt Après L’Ondée (just the EDT in case anyone is wondering), it exerted the same visceral pull as the description in Betts’ review.  It struck me as a dark, mournful, conflicted scent.  There is simultaneously an airy, damp freshness and an earthy dryness.  It is like rain that has been dragged through a hedge backwards.  Yes, that is it – elemental violence has been done to vegetation.  Broken boughs lie strewn in the long wet grass.  And what of the powderiness - the anisic heliotrope sweetness?  Well, it gives the fragrance a very retro, feminine quality, but this is no 'come hither' boudoir powderiness.  It is the scent of a woman with a wan complexion and a broken spirit. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

So Après L’Ondée, this wistful, silver beauty, was the first scent I fell in love with after the mania took hold.  But metal is hard, and this scent should not be worn if you are feeling the least bit emotionally fragile, as I learnt to my cost.  Back in 2010 I was engaged in a difficult work project in California, and one bright and chilly morning unthinkingly spritzed on Après L’Ondée instead of a cosy musk or soothing sandalwood.  I had two appointments that day, but the first person wasn’t there, and the second person was wrong.  Aborting the meeting, I retreated to a nearby mall** to lick my wounds, cruise the perfume aisles of an outlet store and stock up on leisure wear in Gap.

It was a vexing day, and Après L’Ondée merely amplified my feelings of failure and frustration.  In short, my epiphany scent, the catalyst which had catapulted me full tilt into this all-consuming hobby, was making things worse...

This unexpected fragrant downer got me wondering who would have worn Après L’Ondée at the turn of the 20th century when it was launched, bearing in mind that there would have been far fewer scents on the market in those days.  My mind instantly lit upon Virginia Woolf, who was a few years older than me when she walked into a river with her pockets full of stones some 70 odd years ago.  But when Après L’Ondée was released she would only have been 24, and its melancholy quality would have chimed perfectly with her intermittently depressive character.  At least I hope it would have stopped there – at chiming, I mean – and wasn’t a contributing factor to the final bout of depression that prompted her to take her own life. 

Source: Fragrantica

Now hold on a minute – I don’t know that Virginia Woolf wore Après L’Ondée – or any perfume, indeed.

As it happens, I have always admired Woolf’s writing. I haven’t read any of it, mind - it is all a bit too 'stream of consciousness' for me - though I did sit down for a good 15 minutes with 'To The Lighthouse' once.  But seriously, I recognize that she is a literary giant of the 20th century – a modernist who has been hailed as the greatest lyrical novelist in the English language.  And an early feminist to boot.  So Après L’Ondée – with its haunting sadness and restless soul  – seems a fitting choice of hypothetical signature scent for someone who wrote a novel called 'The Waves' and met a watery end.

I tucked this idea away in my mind until I bumped into an unknown relative on one day - we were researching different parts of our family tree and eventually collided into each other at the intersection of our efforts, a mutual ancestor with the singular name of Edward Samuel Boys-Tombs.  I sent this distant cousin an email asking if she would like to pool findings, and the following day we had a long chat on the phone.  After bottoming out our own tenuous and convoluted relationship to each other, my new cousin made me a surprising offer. 


'Would you like to be related to Virginia Woolf and Charles Darwin?' she inquired brightly, as if they were the ancestral equivalent of a banded pack promotion.

My ears pricked up.  'Are you offering?'

'I can trace you back to both of them in - hold on a tick – 17 steps to Virginia Woolf and 19 to Charles Darwin - where a step is going up, down or sideways on the tree via a parent, spouse, sibling or child.'

It took some time for this information to sink in.  Now they do say that we are all related to everyone, however famous, in just six degrees of separation, and that may very well be so, but the flaw with this theory is that we don’t generally know what the six degrees are.   And here was my x-th cousin y-th removed handing me a couple of dead cert celebrity rellies (dead dead certs, admittedly) in under 20 steps!  Okay, as blood connections go, it was very, very thin – several intervening marriages meant that we are talking positively homeopathic levels of dilution – but no matter.  Even wafer-thin blood is thicker than water...;)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Prior to this discovery, the only time my path had remotely crossed that of Virginia Woolf was during a research project for The National Trust (a charity that protects historic houses and monuments).  I stayed at Sissinghurst, an Elizabethan castle in Kent with gardens designed by Virginia Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West.

And now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can speculate whether my exceedingly 'watered down' genetic connection with this fey novelist has something to do with my attraction to a scent that I had independently associated with her, even if that association has no basis in fact.  I was telling the wife of a much closer cousin(!) about the news, knowing her equally keen interest in family history, when she suddenly dropped a genealogical bombshell of her own:  'Well you know, don’t you, that my mother is related to the Sackville-Wests?'  I didn’t, but my mind suddenly went into overdrive, recalling Virginia Woolf’s unconventional relationship with Vita Sackville-West, before applying this extra twist.  'I know what you are thinking', replied my cousin-in-law, 'but just think how many steps that would be from Virginia to Vita, if it is already 17 from Virginia to you.  That’s hardly incestuous, now is it?'

Source: Amazon

'Wouldn’t it be funny if it was 39 steps', I replied, thinking to myself: “Now there’s a book I can get my head around.'

**Editor's note: I later learnt that this mall was only a short hop from where Undina lives, however, at the time I had yet to 'meet' her properly on the blogs. Which is a shame, as I am sure she could have cheered me up no end!


Sun Mi Fontaine said...

I've been looking for violet scents and Apres L'Ondee always shows up. I was thinking about getting a sample though I hadn't read about it too much. I'm not sure I can handle such an emotionally vexing scent - but I am intrigued nonetheless. Thanks for bringing this post back to the spotlight - and best of luck with your continued bathroom work :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Sun,

If you like violet scents you should definitely give this a whirl. You might read it as wistful and dreamy rather than wistful and sad. It is such an iconic / classic scent I think it is worth a spin. I tried L'Heure Bleue on that basis, though I hated it!

Thanks for the good wishes re the bathroom - unfortunately that is on hold now till next year, assuming work picks up.

Tara said...

I'm so glad you re-posted this article, V. I thoroughly enjoyed it. What a great quote from the Vogue editor. That would be sure to trigger any latent perfumista reading The Times that day :)

Also love your brilliant quote about Apres L'Ondee being like rain dragged through a hedge backwards. It's always been too melancholic for me plus I struggle with the heliotrope.

How cool to be related to Virginia Woolf, no matter how tenuously. I'm sure most of us wouldn't get anywhere near that close to one famous historical figure, let alone two.

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

It was a very insidious statement all right, in a good way!

As you know, I also struggle with heliotrope but for some reason it works okay for me here, whereas L'Heure Bleue is too much.

I reckon more people are related to historical figures than we know. The thing is that when doing family tree research, you mostly work vertically, with minimal sideways movement, so to speak, which was how this connection was uncovered. But ordinarily we only know a tiny fraction of our ancestors - they have a clever knack of multiplying exponentially, especially the Victorians with all their children! ;)

Unknown said...

Why oh why did I not save my comment?
OK< second attempt. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, not least because of the Virginia Woolf connection. Orlando has left a long lasting impression on me as a teenager and I think it's even more important book today. As for the perfume: I have yet to discover it. I know it's a classic, but we all have these blind spots...I have a feeling that I will like but not love it, but you never know.

Vanessa said...

Hi Sabine,

Sorry for your loss! Basically assume that the first attempt to publish a comment will *always, always* be swallowed up - it does with me and it's my blog! - and you won't make the mistake again. Blogger does invariably publish successfully on the second attempt. It's just a case of getting in the habit. ;)

Anyway, I was interested to learn that you have read Orlando - maybe that is one I should try rather than The Waves or To the Lighthouse?

Apres L'Ondee is a classic and a half - I think you might like it more than you think, if you ever do decide to seek it out.

Anonymous said...

Aaawww, you deleted the spam comments and your ever so polite replies.

Meanwhile I do like Apres l'Ondee (have only sampled the current EDT). I agree that it is wistful, haven't worn it yet when feeling fragile. I was surprised at first by the anise note, but decided that is what gives it that limpid, liquid quality.

Haven't read any Virginia Woolf other than having started Mrs. Dalloway recently. As for Orlando, I highly recommend the film version with Tilda Swinton.

-- Lindaloo

Vanessa said...

Hi Lindaloo,

Hey, sorry to spoil the fun, but those weren't in fact my polite replies - that was someone posing as me(!), which creeped me out rather, so it all had to go...;)

I love your comment about the anise note giving it a 'limpid, liquid quality'. I don't normally like anise OR heliotrope, but I fell for Apres l'Ondee unreservedly.

Oh I say, I had forgotten the film version of Orlando and should check it out. That might be an easy route in. Love Tilda - reviewed Like This on here a while back. Good luck with Mrs Dalloway!

Carol said...

Here in the US, we have/had a couple of TV shows about genealogy, which I am fascinated by and wish those TV shows would feature, instead of celebrities, regular folks. Soon I want to have my DNA sent in to be analyzed. I'm really interested in seeing the Moth's DNA analysis - as his family doesn't know much about their ancestors. (I probably wrote the exact same reply to your post when you originally posted this!)

Vanessa said...

Hi Carol,

We have a similar show called 'Who do you think you are?', but as you say it features celebrities, whereas the ancestors of ordinary people could be just as interesting viewing.

Wow, what's the deal with DNA analysis? That doesn't tell you about faulty genes too, does it?, only I am not sure I would want to know!

I just checked on Cafleurebon and you didn't comment there, or under the announcement post I put up to direct readers to CFB - so you are not repeating yourself, hehe. I figured that *most* of the readers who do comment nowadays are relatively new to Bonkers, hence it seemed worth featuring the article on my own blog after all this time.

Carol said...

We have that show, and another called "Finding your Roots".
There are three? places where you can get your DNA analyzed, and I think there are different levels. I just want to do the one that shows where my ancestors came from, and to see if there are any cool surprises from that.

Anonymous said...

That *is* truly creepy. I have always thought that bloggers have to do a great deal of work controlling spam, but now you have to prevent imposters too?!

-- Lindaloo

Vanessa said...

Aha, I don't know the other show.

What fun about the DNA testing - not scary at all in fact, but rather fascinating. Do let us know what you uncover.

Vanessa said...

Yeah, the imposter thing spooked me good and proper. So if you see a Vanessa (2) popping up making offensive comments, know that it isn't me!

Undina said...

I know, I'm strange but I'm vaguely interested in living relatives so any dead ones (well, those whom I never knew, I mean) are completely beyond the realm of my interests. Oh, and I'm not fascinated with any famous people - live or dead. Unless they need me I don't want to be in any close proximity to them: if I am a crowd, I'm at least not their crowd.

What else? I tried Apres L'Ondee twice and this one is in the crowd of most Guerlain's perfumes, namely "doesn't work for me at all." So it's probably good I haven't read any of the inspiring reviews before I formed a lot of opinions of my own - or I could have stayed away from exploring more perfumes.

Having said all that, I really enjoyed your post: I love reading your stories in which I have no idea how you'll loop it and where different parts will come together. (but too bad we haven't properly "met" before your visit to hear)

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Interesting that you aren't bothered about your dead relatives. I must say I have found my family history fascinating, as much for the 18th C 'cap knitters' and 'straw plaiters' as my ultra tenuous links with Virginia Woolf. It's the social history as much as anything that has gripped me. Eg my mother had always said she was not allowed to see her own mother when the latter was dying of cancer. It turns out that my grandmother died in a workhouse in London, so she probably wanted to spare my mum the shame and wouldn't let her visit. Yes, I think the appeal is largely the social history aspect, enhanced by the fact that these are my actual ancestors.

I can understand people not liking Apres L'Ondee, as it is very 'singular'. I am quite surprised I do myself!

And yes, wasn't it a shame I didn't know you back then when I was so close to your neck of the woods? ;(