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Smelling History

Evoking a sense of the past through its smells

Smelling History

Describing the past, whether in fiction or in nonfiction, requires more than just a narration of events. Writing should try to evoke the past in the minds of readers, and make them feel like they are witnessing the events described. At its best – War and Peace, or Geoffrey Wellum’s superb memoir of the Battle of Britain, First Light – it can even make readers feel like they are living through those events, alongside the protagonists. When I read books that do this I sometimes find the sense of being there so strong that the hair stands up on the back of my neck. It is that sense of being there that I try, with varying degrees of success, to evoke in my own work.

Evoking the past means not just storytelling but also appealing to the reader’s senses. Sight and hearing are the most important senses; if people can see and hear what is happening, they are much more likely to become involved in the narrative. But the other senses are important too. Touch and taste can be powerfully evocative. Remember Marcel Proust’s famous madeleines in Remembrance of Things Past:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.

What Proust is describing is the awakening of an unconscious memory, something we had forgotten in our conscious life which a sudden and unexpected experience dredges up from our unconscious and foregrounds in our mind. These experiences, as Proust suggests, can be extremely powerful. And one of the most important ways of evoking them is through smell.

Proust, of course, was writing about something he had experienced himself. Of course this isn’t possible when writing history, but the writer can do the next best thing: use a smell from the past to evoke something the reader is familiar with in the present in order to unlock those forgotten memories. In The Road to Crécy, my co-author Marilyn Livingstone and I wanted to convey an idea of what life was like in the camp of a medieval army on the march. We used smells of things like campfires and food, but on one occasion we wanted to evoke another experience:

We have frequently noted the food and fodder consumed by the army and its horses, but have not so far touched on the end result of this consumption. When the army was camped […] it must be assumed that the thousands of men and horses left behind them – not to put too fine a point on it – large quantities of shit. Given that the indications are that the summer of 1346 was hot and dry, Le Teil would have been a place best avoided for a few days after the army’s departure.

This is not something that academic historians ever talk about, but the smell of ordure must have been omnipresent in medieval armies. In this book, writing a narrative account for a general audience, we didn’t feel compelled to go into great detail; most people can imagine the smell for themselves. On other occasions, though, I like to develop the sense of smell much more fully, if only, in the words of Pooh-Bah, ‘to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.’

As well as evoking memories, one can use smells to alter the psychological mood of a scene. The kind of smell and the way it is described will invoke different unconscious memories. Weather can do the same thing: bright sunshine tends to sway people towards hope and optimism, while rain and thunder evoke a more gloomy mood. And, of course, weather has its own smells: the baking smell of hot stones or the sweet resin of pine trees in sunshine, the earthy reek that follows fresh rain, the tang of iron in the wind that tells you it is about to snow.

To give you an idea of what I mean, I have picked out three smells that are useful in describing the past, and I will try to explain how they can be used to evoke certain moods. The first is gunsmoke. Modern smokeless powder has only a faint smell, but in the early-twentieth century cordite, the main propellant for rifles and revolvers, had a very bitter acrid smell. Most powerful of all, though, is the black powder used in pistols, muskets and rifles up to the late- nineteenth century.

Black powder smoke stinks. Black powder’s component parts are charcoal, saltpetre and sulphur, and it is the latter two that combine to produce the smell: acidity combined with rotten eggs. The smell gets into your nose and into your clothes and stays there. Soldiers on a battlefield were surrounded by clouds of the stuff, often so dense they couldn’t see the enemy. Combine that smell and sight and you can create an atmosphere of dense, blind confusion in which people grope stumbling through a stinking fog, trying to find out where they are, trying to stay alive, all the while gagging on the smell.

Or take another scene, where someone is walking across a moor or marsh in the dead of night and suddenly that stink comes faint to their nostrils. At once there is a feeling of danger. Someone has fired a gun, but where, and why? And when (for the smoke will linger a long time, especially in still air)?

But the smell can also be intoxicating. In one of the historical novels my wife and I write together, a young woman who has joined a gang of smugglers declares the smell of gunsmoke to be like incense. When she breathes it in, she feels danger but also excitement, and her body tingles with life. ‘Bring me my torchlight and gunsmoke’, she declares; this is what she lives for.

The second smell on my list is attar of roses. (If you have never smelled attar of roses, buy a box of Turkish delight. Then imagine that smell concentrated to the power of ten.) The immediate connotation is one of luxury and decadence. It takes something like 250 pounds of rose petals to produce one ounce of attar of roses, so this smell is also something rare and expensive. But attar of roses is also particularly associated – in the Western imagination, at least – with Turkish and Persian cultures, so its smell will also conjure up images of Asian culture. Even if used in a Western European or American setting, the smell of attar of roses will immediately make people think of something exotic, luxurious and perhaps just a little bit mysterious (what is this scent doing there? How did it come to be here?)

The third smell is the smell of the sea, or rather, the smells of the sea, because there are many of them. The stagnant water of harbours, reeking of brine and seaweed, and probably refuse as well, is repugnant, but also mysterious and again possibly dangerous; what is floating in that water, under the piers and between the moored boats? Perhaps a body? Or, take a bright day with a brisk onshore wind, driving heavy seas onto rocks and throwing up fountains of spray. The air is full of salt and ozone. There is something fresh about that smell that will perk the reader up and make them feel more alive. Here the sense is one of discovery and awakening; explorers setting off to cross the chartless oceans, or fishermen preparing to put to sea to wrest a living from the wind and waves, or a submarine emerging dark and dripping from the waves offshore. The possibilities are limitless.

Smell works best, of course, when combined with the other senses, especially sight and sound, but taste too; taste and smell are of course closely connected, and if you can smell salt water in the wind, the chances are you can taste it on your tongue as well. Touch and smell work well together too; should you ever want to describe the internal organs of a freshly killed body, using touch and smell combined is an excellent way to both fascinate and repel readers. (I should point out that my own experience is limited to animals being slaughtered for meat, and not humans.)

If you haven’t tried using smells to evoke the past, I strongly suggest giving it a go. There are plenty of resources out there, and I recommended Jonathan Reinarz’s book, Past Scents: historical perspectives on smell. There is also some very interesting research being done at the University of London at the moment. Playing around with smells can be a lot of fun. And if in future an Amazon reviewer complains that your writing really stinks, you can take it as a compliment.

Morgen Witzel is the author of more than thirty fiction and non-fiction books. With Marilyn Livingstone he is the author of The Black Prince and the Capture of a King: Poitiers, 1356 (2018). He and Marilyn also write fiction under the name A.J. MacKenzie, including the Hardcastle and Chaytor mystery series.

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