Perfumed Letters

Reading the scent trail of fragrance and words

Smelly Shopping with Rachilde



Rachilde (1860-1953)

As this year’s shopping season reaches a crescendo, Business News Daily  reports that the fastest way to a customer’s wallet may be through the nose. In a recent experiment, buyers exposed to a plain orange fragrance spent 20% more money than those who inhaled a blend of orange, basil and green tea. Similarly, researchers concluded that students can focus and problem-solve more quickly in the presence of simple (as opposed to mixed) odors. From my basic knowledge of what the humans of my time and culture perceive as single or simple odors, I’m wondering if the studies’ results might reflect identifiability or familiarity of a smell, rather than, necessarily,  its lack of complexity. I suspect I’d buy as many socket wrenches at a hardware store steeped in a familiar, complex aroma–let’s say Amouage Lyric–as I would in a cloud of orange zest. In any case, the findings are useful to retailers who thought that just making their shops smell pretty might boost sales. Instead, it’s all about an unfussy fragrance intrusion fostering focused decision-making. This discussion of buying and selling against a backdrop of simple odors makes me even more attentive to ambient fragrance (orchestrated or not). It also triggers one of my favorite literary scent memories.

When I think of easy-to-identify shopping odors, overcooked apple comes to mind. That’s because warm apple smell permeates the first pages of Monsieur Vénus (1884), a novel that helped to earn Rachilde (née Marguerite Eymery) the nickname “Mademoiselle Baudelaire.” The story opens as protagonist Raoule de Vénérande gropes her way to a seventh-floor hovel, where she hopes to buy an arrangement of faux flowers to adorn an evening gown. As she opens the door, Raoule inhales a sickening blast of foreboding fruit: “the smell of apples cooking choked her and stopped her short at the threshold. No smell was more odious to her than of the apples, and so it was with a shiver of disgust that she examined the garret before revealing her presence” ( 7-8).  Now that’s the smell of a decadent plot thickening.

Once inside, Raoule’s initial disgust–“That smell of sautéed apples was becoming unbearable to her” (11)–wanes in proportion to her waxing desire for flower-arranger Jacques Silvert. A long look at  Jacques’ androgynous features facilitates Raoule’s reconciliation with apple-infused air : “But she was feeling better; the jets of hot steam from the apples no longer annoyed her, and the flowers scattered among the dirty plates even seemed to exude a certain poetry” (12). Catching a glimpse of Jacques’ tangled, golden chest hair, “Mlle de Vénérande fancied that she might indeed eat one of those apples without much disgust” (14).

To say that Raoule gives into temptation would be an understatement. In this fin-de-siècle Garden of Eden, where the apples simmer and flowers have no scent, Raoule de Vénérande makes a one-hundred-fifty franc purchase and buys into much more. Perhaps plain orange would have functioned just as well in this shopper’s smellscape, but you can’t put a price tag on metaphorical apples.

Further reading and notes:

Quotations are from Melanie Hawthorne’s excellent translation, which includes notes by Melanie Hawthorne and Liz Constable: Monsieur Vénus: A Materialist Novel.  New York: MLA, 2004.

Image of Rachilde from Wikipedia.

On the use of smells to enhance learning, see also “Study Aid Bracelets make ‘Scents’ for Students.”


13 thoughts on “Smelly Shopping with Rachilde

  1. squeeee! I love scent literature posts…but I cannot figure out why someone would hate the smell of simmering apples? Hmmmm. And added the book to my Goodreads ‘to read’ list. Thanks!

  2. I love a good baked apple with lots of cinnamon! So I think I would not be put off by Monsieur curly blond chest hair one bit. I loved your post and I am going to look for the book. It sounds wonderful.

  3. I’m catching up on my reading.

    I like everything apple – raw fruit, baked, pureed, dried – you name it. Though I’m not sure how effective it would be for me as a purchasing stimulant: I might run to the nearest café to eat 😉

    Loved this post!

  4. Thank you, Undina!
    Foody smells generally make me want to leave shops–especially fruity or pumpkiny candle smells.
    When home buying I was very turned off by the kitchens that had been infused with baked cookie fragrance.

    I”m suddenly craving apple pie…

  5. Great excerpts! The smell of apples is one that seems to be used fairly often in shops during the holidays, like the fruity and pumpkiny candles you mention. And like you, they make me want to leave – stat!

  6. Very nicely done!

    Aroma branding is very popular these days. I will always remember how Timberland stores have their ultra sweet scent. But like Undina said, it would make me to go to the patisserie! 🙂


  7. Thanks so much, Juraj! I don’t think I’ve smelled a Timberland store. Now I’m intrigued. Happy sniffing!

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