Scents and Sensibility: Perfume in Victorian Literary Culture

ISBN : 9780198701750

Catherine Maxwell
400 ページ
156 x 234 mm

Winner of the 2018 European Society for the Study of English Book Prize for Literature in the English Language


  • A rare and fascinating account of scent and perfume availability and use in the Victorian period
  • The first book to explore nineteenth-century literature via perfume and the sense of smell
  • Canvasses a large range of British nineteenth-century poetry and prose and some early twentieth-century writers, and includes imaginative readings of both canonical and non-canonical literary texts
  • Includes a diverse and intriguing range of images including colour plates
  • Draws on a wealth of material including perfumer guides, etiquette guides, beauty manuals, advertising, diaries, letters, and biographies
  • Also studies flowers and buttonholes, soap and toiletries, aromatic jewellery, the scenting of garments and letters, and perfumed snuff and tobacco

This lively, accessible book is the first to explore Victorian literature through scent and perfume, presenting an extensive range of well-known and unfamiliar texts in intriguing and imaginative new ways that make us re-think literature's relation with the senses. Concentrating on aesthetic and decadent authors, Scents and Sensibility introduces a rich selection of poems, essays, and fiction, exploring these texts with reference to both the little-known cultural history of perfume use and the appreciation of natural fragrance in Victorian Britain. It shows how scent and perfume are used to convey not merely moods and atmospheres but the nuances of the aesthete or decadent's carefully cultivated identity, personality, or sensibility. 

A key theme is the emergence of the olfactif, the cultivated individual with a refined sense of smell, influentially represented by the poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne, who is emulated by a host of canonical and less well-known aesthetic and decadent successors such as Walter Pater, Edmund Gosse, John Addington Symonds, Lafcadio Hearn, Michael Field, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, Mark André Raffalovich, Theodore Wratislaw, and A. Mary F. Robinson. This book explores how scent and perfume pervade the work of these authors in many different ways, signifying such diverse things as style, atmosphere, influence, sexuality, sensibility, spirituality, refinement, individuality, the expression of love and poetic creativity, and the aura of personality, dandyism, modernity, and memory. A coda explores the contrasting twentieth-century responses of Virginia Woolf and Compton Mackenzie to the scent of Victorian literature.


Note on the Texts
1: Top Notes: Victorian Perfume Contexts
2: Perfumed Melodies, Violet Memories: Scent and Remembrance in the Nineteenth Century
3: Les Fleurs du Mâle
4: Scent, the Body, and the Cosmopolitan Flaireur
5: Carnal Flowers, Charnel Flowers: Tuberose in Late Victorian Poetry
6: Michael Field's Fragrant Imagination
7: Dandies and Decadents
8: Victorian Drydown and Sillage


Catherine Maxwell, Professor of Victorian Literature, Queen Mary, University of London
Catherine Maxwell read English literature for her BA and D.Phil. at St Hugh's College, Oxford where she was subsequently a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow from 1990-1993. She then joined the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary, University of London, becoming Professor of Victorian Literature in 2009. She is the author of The Female Sublime from Milton to Swinburne: Bearing Blindness (Manchester University Press, 2001), Swinburne (Northcote House, 2006), and Second Sight: The Visionary Imagination in Late Victorian Literature (Manchester University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on Victorian poetry and prose.

Winner of the 2018 European Society for the Study of English Book Prize for Literature in the English Language


"Despite the prominence of the olfactory sense in late nineteenth-century writing, no full-length study has examined perfume in the literature of the period until now. Catherine Maxwell's contribution to this nascent field is a considerable accomplishment." - Stephanie Kelley, Times Literary Supplement

"vivid, wide-ranging book" - Matthew Reisz, Times Higher Education

"A timely and spectacularly original contribution to the fields of Victorian culture, aestheticism and decadence, sensory studies, and studies of influence. It will be indispensable to students and scholars of Victorian, Fin-de-siècle and Modernist studies, as well as enthusiasts of fashion and perfume. If Huysmans's À rebours (1884) is a perfumed novel, Scents and Sensibility is the first perfumed monograph, a study that harbours a number of surprise ingredients that make it irresistible." - Kostas Boyiopoulos, The Review of English Studies

"Scents and Sensibility is written with clarity and verve, its finely wrought analyses mercifully free of jargon. It is shrewd, drily humorous, and extremely well researched. Augmented with attractive colour plates (though lacking scratch and sniff panels) and produced with OUPs usual scrupulousness, it is at once informative and entertaining." - Nick Freeman, BSLS Reviews

"Maxwell's study vibrantly illuminates the important significance of the olfactory sense in Victorian literature and culture. Combining an impressive grasp of the mechanics of nineteenth-century perfume production and marketing with a close attention to telling aspects of textual and biographical detail, Maxwell's study ranges confidently from its central focus on fin-de-siècle literature ... to the 'insistent sweet perfume' of English decadent literature." - Fraser Riddell, Journal of Victorian Culture

"Catherine Maxwell's third monograph is not only a welcome addition to the field, but a genuinely original contribution to knowledge." - Luca Caddia, The Keats-Shelley Review

"fascinating ... Gathering the fragrant thoughts of luminaries from Oscar Wilde to H.G. Wells, it's a sumptuous plunge that presents perfume as a character in its own right." - The Scented Letter

"It is ... the perfect book for anyone who loves scent and Victorian literature ... if I didn't already have a copy it would be top of my Christmas wish list." - Desperate Reader