I have been rereading the wonderful House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and I am absolutely convinced that we are meant to read the lovely socialite protagonist as a study in the beauty and artifice of perfume. Maybe I’m crazy…what else would you make of this:
She paused before the mantelpiece, studying herself in the mirror while she adjusted her veil. The attitude revealed the long slope of her slender sides, which gave a kind of wild-wood grace to her outline – as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing-room; and Selden reflected that it was the same streak of sylvan freedom in her nature that lent such savour to her artificiality. (1.1.119)
Isn’t that what perfume is, something elemental which is trapped in a slender bottle of great beauty which still intimates some wild, untamed beyond? It is a way to capture and restrain magic—like containing a sylvan creature like a dryad in an upper-class New York drawing room.
Ok, if you still think I’m delusional, consider Lily Bart’s purpose in life:
“She had so long been accustomed to pass from one country-house to another, till the close of the holidays brought her friends to town, that the unfilled gaps of time confronting her produced a sharp sense of waning popularity. It was as she had said to Selden--people were tired of her. They would welcome her in a new character, but as Miss Bart they knew her by heart. She knew herself by heart too, and was sick of the old story. There were moments when she longed blindly for anything different, anything strange, remote and untried; but the utmost reach of her imagination did not go beyond picturing her usual life in a new setting. She could not figure herself as anywhere but in a drawing-room, diffusing elegance as a flower sheds perfume.”
Lily is an aesthetic ornament, expected to ‘diffuse’ elegance just as a flower diffuses perfume. She is such a work of art, of artifice, that she cannot understand herself outside this context. She is an objet d’art, a fragrant, beautiful one, and she believes herself to have no other purpose beyond this… and Wharton’s narrative sometimes makes me wonder if Edith Wharton herself did not believe in her heart of hearts that aesthetic existence was all that really mattered as well.
If you are not convinced by this, consider Wharton’s treatment of scent as an end in itself, of it as part of a perfect aesthetic experience:
“Lily dropped down on the rock, glowing with her long climb. She sat quiet, her lips parted by the stress of the ascent, her eyes wandering peacefully over the broken ranges of the landscape. Selden stretched himself on the grass at her feet, tilting his hat against the level sun-rays, and clasping his hands behind his head, which rested against the side of the rock. He had no wish to make her talk; her quick-breathing silence seemed a part of the general hush and harmony of things. In his own mind there was only a lazy sense of pleasure, veiling the sharp edges of sensation as the September haze veiled the scene at their feet. But Lily, though her attitude was as calm as his, was throbbing inwardly with a rush of thoughts. There were in her at the moment two beings, one drawing deep breaths of freedom and exhilaration, the other gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears. But gradually the captive's gasps grew fainter, or the other paid less heed to them: the horizon expanded, the air grew stronger, and the free spirit quivered for flight.
She could not herself have explained the sense of buoyancy which seemed to lift and swing her above the sun-suffused world at her feet. Was it love, she wondered, or a mere fortuitous combination of happy thoughts and sensations? How much of it was owing to the spell of the perfect afternoon, the scent of the fading woods, the thought of the dulness she had fled from? Lily had no definite experience by which to test the quality of her feelings. She had several times been in love with fortunes or careers, but only once with a man.”
gorgeous prose, gorgeous imagery, and a gorgeous awareness of all things beautiful, and the way beauty—glimpsed in a perfect afternoon perfumed by the ‘fading woods’—can surprise one into the most miraculous transcendence.