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 of opoponax and jasmine is more complex and less cloyingly sweet than many perfumes.

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.

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.

JH 2019
Commiphora erythraea trees growing in Somalia. Source: www.fragrantica.com.