We returned from the market on a warm balmy Sunday with a potted tuberose. I spotted the unspectacular tuber amongst a pile of cacti and basil haphazardly laid out under a vendor's tent and immediately wanted it for my own.
That evening, the scent of the tuberose filled the house. The heady perfume really is intoxicating, it draws you in and clouds your thoughts. You almost think it's too much but you breathe deeper to take more in. A very sensuous scent, and, I venture to say, a dangerous one.
Pouring a Pernod on ice with water, I let the scent take me away. It has a heady, almost opaque quality. I would describe the scent as not so much 'tropical' but more like 'humid hot-house'. If it were a colour, it would be an aged ivory white. A bit sinister, but beautiful. More exotic than orange blossom, less sweet than frangipani, it matches the velvet-gloved punch of narcissus. I can't help but think of Symbolist poetry, Gustave Moreau and darkened book-filled rooms.
Digging out JK Huysmans' "Against Nature", I flipped to the chapter where he fills his chamber with evocative perfumes, finds himself overwhelmed and throws open the windows:
"...assailing his jaded nostrils, shaking anew his shattered nerves, and throwing him into such a state of prostration that he fell fainting, almost dying, across the window-sill."
I knew that the hero, Des Esseintes, used tuberose in a recipe to evoke lilac. Starting with ambrosia, Mitcham lavendar, sweet pea and other flowers, he adds to this 'extract of meadow blossom' tuberose, orange and almond blossom. Not satisfied with this new artificial lilac, he goes on, in an increasingly mad frenzy, to add more and more perfumes, changing the mood, conjuring more dim memories and disturbed visions until his final fainting. Some people just don't know when to stop.
And here's more of the same. The luscious volume 1 of The Yellow Book, the notorious English magazine which ran for 13 editions in the mid 1890s and came to symbolise the rather weary mood of the time. The first few editions include illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. A lovely set of books.
I could go on, in this purple (or is it yellow) mood. But I'll finish with a poem by Arthur Symons, "Maquillage" from 1892:
"The charm of rouge on fragile cheeks,
Pearl-powder, and, about the eyes,
The dark and lustrous eastern dyes;
A voice of violets that speaks
Of perfumed hours of day, and doubtful night
Of alcoves curtained close against the light.
Gracile and creamy white and rose,
Complexioned like the flower of dawn,
Her fleeting colours are as those
That, from an April sky withdrawn,
Fade in a fragrant mist of tears away
When weeping noon leads on the altered day."