Monday, May 9, 2016

Longbourn: Imagining the Scented Lives of Elizabeth Bennet's Servants

It is always a small thrill for a perfume lover to find mention of scent when reading a novel. Some authors even go so far as to have their character use a particular fragrance as part of the character's development, but more often it is just a fleeting mention to add descriptive substance. Thus, when I came across a mere two sentences of such scented snippets while reading Longbourn by Jo Baker I eagerly pounced on this tidbit of information and tried to figure out how these two characters would be scented.

Jane Austen died 199 years ago in relative obscurity at the age of forty one, having completed six novels. She would most likely be quite bemused at what a literary icon she has become, so much so that there is term for her legion of fans: Janeites. Janeites, of which I might be one, are enthusiastic in anything remotely connected to Jane Austen and have an insatiable demand for more works in a similar vein. This has spawned movies, television mini series, and numerous books imagining Jane's characters as everything from modern day misses to zombies.

In Longbourn, the reader is taken behind the scenes of the Bennet house and into the lives of the servants who work for the family. There are mere glimpses of the matrimonial worries of the Bennet sisters but the heart of the story is the servants:  Mr. and Mrs. Hill who run the house and whose lives may not be exactly as they seem; Sarah, an orphan who has worked in the house since she was young and questions her life of servitude; Polly, a younger orphan who crosses paths with the treacherous Mr. Wickham; and James, the mysterious footman who has a hidden and secret connection to the Longbourn house.  The charm of this book for me was the way Jo Baker has captured the cadence and melody of the words on page that feel very much like Jane Austen herself could have been the author. It is not as laugh out loud funny as Austen's works can be, but then these servants lives are not very amusing. She does capture Austen's acerbic witticisms, and it is as if Pride and Prejudice has been turned inside out as we view it through the lens of the servants' lives.

"If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them."
The above is a quote from Sarah, the book's heroine, who looks after the Bennet sisters and tends to their everyday toiletry needs. Sarah is far too busy and far too poor to have access to perfume, but there is a passage where she makes lavender soap for the sisters. In that era this was an unpleasant occupation involving lye soap and animal fat. To try to make the concoction more luxurious flower petals were added.
"It had never failed to astonish her, down the years of helping Mrs. Hill, how soap that made things clean was such a foul thing in its own making. She stripped the pale dried lavender, and dropped the buds into the curdling porridge."
I imagined that Sarah would never dream of a luxury such as perfume, but just perhaps she kept a tiny bar of the lavender bud soap aside as a small treat for herself. A present day soap that fits the bill is Mistral Savon Aux Fleurs, Fleurs de Lavande.
 This French milled soap smells softly of lavender and has actual bits of lavender bud embedded into the soap which serve as an exfoliating agent during washing. I would imagine that in the era Austen's characters lived, baths were infrequent and the rose petal or lavender buds added to soap would help to scrap the dirt off. We may not need such heavy duty cleaning today but it is still a nice sensation to have the lavender act as a skin polishing buffer! I have a bar of this in my shower now.

James Smith, a mysterious jack of all trades who wanders to Longbourn looking for work, becomes Sarah's eventual love interest. James is a Byronic hero in that he is a brooding, tortured outsider, but he lacks the demonic characteristics; James is as gentle as a lamb. There is a scene where James and Sarah first notice their attraction to each other:
"James passed a baggage strap behind the post, and fastened it around Sarah's waist, buckling her safely in. He had to lean close in to do this. The scent of him--leather, horse, hay--the angle of his cheekbone--she would keep the memory with her."
I have chosen two scents for James. The first is Dame Perfumery Leather Man. Jeffrey Dame makes beautiful colognes and describes them as "clean, subtle, and interesting." Notes are gurjun balsam, iris, jasmine, gardenia, water lily, sandalwood, amber and leather. Don't be fooled by this flowery list of notes because you'll be hard pressed to pick them out. Initially I smell the water lily and it is not really floral so much as watery. Gurjun balsam does not have a strong scent and can in fact have the property of tempering other notes and bringing the intensity down.  The leather comes out after a short time and reads more like a blonde supple suede, not brown boot leather. The florals are very quiet but add an interesting background touch of outdoor plant elements. This is one of the softest leathers I've ever smelled and for our purposes here, it is as if our character James has come in contract with the leather bridles and whips but they have left a mere whisper of scent on his skin. I tried this on myself and my husband, and he liked it very much.

The second scent I would put James in is one I have already reviewed, Imaginary Authors The Cobra and the Canary. This perfume features notes of both leather and hay. The leather is much darker than Leather Man, but not at all overpowering. The hay adds an earthiness and dryness to the overall feel of the perfume and also tones down the strength of the leather.

I very much enjoyed Longbourn but I give you fair warning; people seemed to adore it or find it extremely tedious. Read reviews at Goodreads to get an idea if the book is for you.

Photo top from Photo of soap from Mistral website.

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