When I was a child, Christmas was the smell of oranges and cigars and the Christmas tree, resinous and strange. Put any two of them together and it still bounces me right back into the past, bringing with it firelight, the bustle of friendly company, a sense of holding my breath in excitement. Smell is the first route by which I recall emotion.
Why smell evokes memory : the science bit
There is a reason for this, I find. Olfactory neurones in the upper part of the nose generate an impulse which signals the limbic system, that part of the brain which controls not only memory but also emotion, mood and behaviour. Supposedly, this is one of the most primitive parts of the brain.
Smell — the fallen angel of senses?
Apparently, Helen Keller called smell “the fallen angel of the human senses” because we don’t use it any more to tell us there’s a tiger in the area. And I agree that we live in an intensely visual age, with more communication illustrated than ever before.
And, even more important to the romantic novelist, smell is an important part of sexual attraction.
There is even a school of scientists who hold that kissing started as experimental sniffing. God bless their pointy little heads.
For me, in fiction, the sense of smell is less a fallen angel than Cinderella. And I have never understood why until I tried to transfer my smell⇒memory experience into my current novel.
How authors use the sense of smell in fiction
As I researched, I found that authors who conjure up brilliant images, conversations and even sounds, can seem at a loss with the most visceral of the senses.
There are honourable exceptions. Dickens was good at the stench of London, the river, the meat market, the prisons. Ian Fleming (personally a fan of Floris No 89 eau de toilette, incidentally) also did disgusting smells really well, nailing the 3.00 a.m. casino as “scent and smoke and sweat”. And when the second Mrs de Winter investigates her predecessor’s bedroom, she is overwhelmed by the traces of Rebecca’s white azalea perfume, which has become “faded and old”.
Using smell to evoke the protagonist’s memory … and the reader’s
But, though all of these carry emotional messages, none of them plug into the personal memory of the protagonist. Nor do they engage with that moment of shock as the imagination instantaneously jumps back in time without warning.
I wanted to do both. My own heroine is brought up short by the smell of growing lavender and plunged into a forgotten childhood memory. It was taking me too long to describe the smell. The scene lost impact.
A masterclass, from Mary Stewart
And then I found the answer in one of my favourite books, Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart.
The heroine has passed out from exhaustion and lack of food and the shock of seeing her lover standing over the dead body of his father. The next section of the book begins, “…Warmth, and the sound of liquid, and the smell of azaleas … And someone was patting my hand. But there was no music and the voice that said my name was not Florimond’s.”
And it worked.
It worked, not because the author describes the smell of azaleas — though I have it in my nostrils even as I type — but because she is referring to a big romantic scene which we have already witnessed on the page. The reader is given all the triggers to remember it, too. In fact, the reader goes on exactly the same journey as the heroine. And is now ready — as the poor, distraught heroine is not, yet — for an ending of high romance.
Now to see if I can apply this lesson …