In Gustave Flaubert's antiquity-woven novel Salammbô (1862), lesser known than his enduring classic Madame Bovary but equally masterful, set in Carthage after the First Punic War with Rome, the eponymous heroine indulges in a ritual which is sure to have the antennae of every perfume lover out there twitching with delight.
|Salammbo by Gaston Bussiere via pinterest|
Salammbô wore earrings made from two little sapphire scales supporting two perforated pearls filled with scented oils, which slowly dripped their perfume over her body throughout the day, entrancing Mathô, the Libyan leader of the mercenaries, in the scene when she wants into his tent: "A little drop would fall every moment through the holes in the pearl and moisten her naked shoulder. Mathô watched it fall. […] He opened his nostrils the better to breathe in the perfume which exhaled from her person". What did these scented oils consist of? How did they smell exactly? "It was a fresh, indefinable emanation, which nevertheless made him dizzy, like the smoke from a perfuming-pan. She smelt of honey, pepper, incense, roses, with another odour still." The writer leaves something to our fertile imagination…
|Salammbo by Jules Toulot via pinterest|
But contrary to the Salome-imbued images of western perception of the oriental femme fatale, Salammbô's garments are modest and concealing, leaving the thrill of the seduction to her ingenious earrings; Flaubert outlines the mystical thrill of the exotic women of the east in unconventional terms. Of course Flaubert has also delineated the demure exoticism of Madame Amoux in L'Education Sentimentale and was known for his sniffing (almost) fetish ~keeping his mistress's mittens in a drawer to smell when the mood stroke~ which he reproduced into his writing in such phrases as "Her comb, her gloves, her rings were to him things of great interest".
The scent of the desired woman becomes a detail which catches the fantasy quota of the reader like nothing else.