In Brief

Martha Clifford closes her letter to Henry Flower with a "P. S. Do tell me what kind of perfume does your wife use. I want to know." The novel does eventually give the reader an answer to her question. But a more interesting question is why she wants to know.

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Much later, in Nausicaa, Bloom catches a whiff of Gerty MacDowell's perfume and wonders what kind it is: "What is it? Heliotrope? No. Hyacinth? Hm. Roses, I think. She’d like scent of that kind. Sweet and cheap: soon sour. Why Molly likes opoponax. Suits her, with a little jessamine mixed. Her high notes and her low notes." The context suggests that Molly's blend is more complex and less cloying than many perfumes. Opoponax has a smoky, vegetal aroma, while jasmine, a floral scent, is richly sweet. (Called "the king of flowers" in India and "God's gift" in Persia, it is one of the most prized ingredients in expensive perfumes and both the plant and the scent are sometimes called jessamine. But there may be ambiguity here: jessamine can denote plants entirely different from Jasminum species.)

Opopanax or opoponax, sometimes called "sweet myrrh," is a resin derived by tapping the gummy sap of shrubs and trees of the Commiphora genus, which also produces myrrh and frankincense. The trees grow in Somalia and nearby countries, and their resin has been used in perfumes since biblical times. The presence of myrrh and frankincense among the gifts that the Magi bring to the Christ child suggests how un-"cheap" these scents are, and Molly's use of opoponax makes one more link in a chain of details that defines her as exotically Mediterranean: Spanish, Jewish, Arab, Turkish. Jasmine, too, is an evocative detail to mention: it has often been regarded as an aphrodisiac.

But why should "Martha" take the trouble to inquire about her rival's perfume? Clearly it is an intimate question, violating the boundary that separates spouses from the outside world and indicating a desire to move the epistolary flirtation into the realm of physical closeness. It could be that Martha aims to please Henry by smelling just like his wife. A less pathetically self-abasing, more confidently cunning possibility is that she is thinking practically about the tactics of conducting a sexual affair: Henry's wife could hardly suspect him of infidelity when he comes home bearing her own scent.

[2022] Later in Lotus Eaters Bloom recalls Martha's question and thinks of another perfume: "What perfume does your? Peau d'Espagne." The French name means "Spanish skin" or "Spanish leather." This scent may possibly enter Bloom's thoughts because, like Molly's opoponax-jasmine blend, it is compounded of tree oils (sandalwood, benzoin) and flower essences (rose, neroli or orange blossom, lavender, verbena, bergamot, clove, cinnamon), as well as animal scents (musk, civet). Originally used to augment the scent of leather, it migrated into the world of women's perfumes in the years around 1900. In Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol. 4 (1927), Havelock Ellis describes it as "a highly complex and luxurious perfume, often the favorite scent of sensuous persons." He reports that "it is said by some, probably with a certain degree of truth, that Peau d'Espagne is of all perfumes that which most nearly approaches the odor of a woman's skin; whether it also suggests the odor of leather is not so clear."

In 1913 British poet Arthur Symons, who had conducted a long clandestine affair in the 1890s, published a poem called Peau d'Espagne. It concludes: 

Peau d'Espagne, scent of sex, that brings
To mind those ways wherein I went,
Perhaps I might forget these things
But for that infamy, your scent!
JH 2019
Commiphora erythraea trees growing in Somalia. Source: www.fragrantica.com.
Photographic portrait of Arthur Symons taken in 1906 by Alvin Langdon Coburn, held in the New York Public Library. Source: Wikimedia Commons.