And Maidens Call It Love-In-Idleness

Stories of Perfume, Magic, and Medicine

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John William Godward “The New Perfume” 1914. Wikimedia Commons.
John William Godward “The New Perfume” 1914. Wikimedia Commons.

Children! To perform this nifty trick, ask your mother for a shelled-out lemon, balled-up handkerchiefs, a vial of perfume, fire, and a pistol. “I have written this work,” writes Professor Henri Garenne, in his introduction to the 1886 edition of The Art of Modern Conjuring, Magic, and Illusions: A Practical Treatise on the Art of Parlour
and Stage Magic, Illusions, Spiritualism, Ventriloquism, Thought Reading, Mesmerism, Mnemotechny, etc., etc., “not as an exposure of the art of Conjuring and Magic, but simply to act as a guide for amateurs and young beginners; therefore I shall enumerate many tricks and illusions that my young friends can perform at home amongst their numerous friends.” Fortunately for Garenne’s young friends, and his friends’ friends, the professor was inept at describing even the simplest trick. And though he may or may not have been any kind of scholar at all, he wrote with an academic’s deathly, bloodless prose, rendering The Art of Modern Conjuring utterly artless.

As a result, the lives of many young children were spared. If they’d been at all tempted to engage with the book, they most certainly would have perished, as these tricks involved flowing robes over candle flames, sharp knives, instruction on applying mercury to your skin in order to handle red-hot iron, and “tables fitted with a combination of traps, pistons, etc.,” which his young friends are encouraged to purchase from a “Mr. Bland, of New Oxford Street.” Professor Garenne’s unlucky Trick No. 13 in the chapter on “tricks with handkerchiefs” reads like a study in befuddled chaos, inviting his young magicians to fire a pistol at a lemon, then take a knife to it, all while a member of the audience stands nearby. And if you survive that, and your innocent bystander is also still standing, you are to hold the audience member’s handkerchief (which has been in the scooped-out lemon) and say, “As it seems to smell strongly of the lemon, I will just perfume it before returning.” You’re then advised to “pour some spirits of wine upon it, and appearing as if you had made it too wet, hold it over the flame of a candle for an instant, and it will be all in a blaze.”

A fellow magician accused Professor Garenne (which was the pseudonym for magician Frank Lind) of filling his book with tricks stolen from his act. Lind eventually retired to run a waxworks.

Perhaps even more dangerous than Professor Garenne’s tricks with perfume are those of Medea. From Piesse’s Art of Perfumery: “The magic power of Medea consisted in her skill as a perfumer, and as an inventress of warm vapor-baths … That the professors of the medical art might not discover her secrets, she used fomentations in her baths in secret. These made men more active, and improved their health; and as her apparatus consisted of a caldron, wood, and fire, it was believed that her patients were in reality boiled. Pelias, an old and infirm man, using this operation, died in the process.”

The Art of Perfumery (many editions were published throughout the latter half of the 19th century) speaks also
of the magical perfumes of “the fairy Melusina and the enchanter Merlin,” and saluted more generally the magicians and alchemists who “devised precious philtres for keeping lovers faithful, and infallible recipes for precuring to themselves eternal youth.”

With similar ideas in mind, in conjunction with a 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Royal Society of Chemistry experimented with the particulars of the love potion that overcomes Titania, Queen of the Fairies. Shakespeare credits the concoction (“The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid / will make man or woman madly dote / upon the next live creature that it sees”) to a wild pansy called love-in-idleness, also known as “heart’s ease” due to the belief that it had medicinal properties for heart ailments.

Dr. Charles Sell, the scientist involved, dismissed love-in-idleness as too faint in fragrance to have any sort of magical aphrodisiacal qualities; he nonetheless improvised a perfume based on Shakespeare’s play, adding other flowers referenced, such as sweet musk roses. Though the resulting fragrance proved enchanting, it failed to challenge the common sense of science. The BBC reported that “Dr. Sell admits he hasn’t noticed any dramatic increase in amorous activity.”

The magical influence of perfume, however, did get some scientific validation back in 1907, in a journal article that addressed “marital infelicity,” written by a doctor credited as “Formerly Professor of Venereal Diseases in the Medical Department of the University of New York, New York.” His study led him to conclude that some men simply couldn’t stand the natural odors of their wives. Once the honeymoon is over, it seems, the sensible wife will stop bothering to wear perfume to impress him. Actually, this odorous issue is defined by the doctor as “one of the most frequent” reasons for husbands being rendered impotent by their wives.

To further support these theories about perfume as love potion, the good doctor credits the power of perfume as a cause for infidelity. “We all know how various perfumes will attract men as well as animals, and I have been told by men, apparently sane and in their right minds, but who were nevertheless neurasthenic, that they had the utmost difficulty in keeping their hands off their female stenographers when these women have used certain perfumes, varying according to individual tastes; and in one instance I remember that serious trouble nearly happened in consequence of the woman’s use of extract of violets, and her employer finally had to tell her, at my suggestion, that she must abandon the use of that perfume or give up her place, as the odor was especially offensive to him.”

The story of La Diavolina is recounted in Legends of Florence (1907), a collection of folktales gathered by Charles Godfrey Leland; this “She-Devil” was a beauty who had a homely daughter. The daughter was never invited to dances, so La Diavolina planted a garden of roses that emitted a perfume so intoxicating, the people of the village robbed the garden, unaware the scent was cursed.

“All the youths and girls of the Via del Fiore who had the stolen roses did nothing but quarrel, flout one another, give, jeer, sneer, curse, and quarrel, like a bottle full of black scorpions, in a worse temper than a pack of devils in a holy-water font, so that smiles became as scarce among them as white flies, and frowns as common as black ones.”

A most poetical description of the magical power of perfume is by the historian Bill Sauder. In the documentary Titanic: The Final Word, he describes the moment when divers brought up from the Titanic’s wreckage site a leather satchel. Inside were vials of concentrated perfume oils that had belonged to Adolph Saalfeld, a chemist who’d been traveling on the Titanic with hopes of breaking into the American perfume market.

“When you recover stuff from the Titanic,” Sauder explains, “it’s wet, it’s rusty, and it’s rotten, and the smell that comes off it is perfectly alien, perfectly fetid. You know it’s a kind of death you have never experienced. And so the lab is kind of unpleasant, and then all of a sudden somebody opens up this satchel—this leather satchel—and out comes the fragrance of heaven. It’s all these flowers and fruity flavors, and it’s delicious. It’s the most wonderful thing you’ve ever had. It was just a complete overwhelming experience. It was like all of a sudden the fragrance of heaven kind of goes through the room. So instead of being surrounded by all of these dead things, for those few minutes, the ship was alive again.”

After describing the discovery, Sauder breaks down in tears.

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