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Janice Carlisle. Common Scents: Comparative Encounters in High-Victorian Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. ISBN: 0195165098. Price: US$60 (£35).

  • Ella Dzelzainis

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  • Ella Dzelzainis
    Birkbeck, University of London

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Janice Carlisle’s central premise in Common Scents: Comparative Encounters in High-Victorian Fiction is smartly encapsulated in the pun of its title, which she proceeds to elaborate in the introduction: what an analysis of the representation of smell in the novel of the 1860s suggests is that for the middle-class mid-Victorian there was a tacitly understood hierarchy of olfaction – a common sense of common scents. Study of the literary depiction of odor in this decade, Carlisle claims, has thus enabled her to “gauge as precisely as possible the anxieties that predominated after the crises of poverty and popular politics in the early Victorian period and before the depression and decadence of the fin-de-siècle” (5). Although the book focuses primarily on just seven novels from the period–Felix Holt, the Radical and Middlemarch (George Eliot); Our Mutual Friend and Great Expectations (Charles Dickens); Evan Harrington (George Meredith); The Clever Woman of the Family (Charlotte Yonge); and Salem Chapel (Margaret Oliphant)–Carlisle’s arguments are informed by her reading of eighty of the novels written or published in the 1860s. This conscientious thoroughness served to confirm her thesis. As she comments, despite the “obvious dissimilarities of their subjects, aesthetic ambitions, original popularity, or staying power” the eighty novels were “remarkably consistent in their evocation of smells”–so much so that toward the end of her reading marathon the references to odor had acquired such “predictive power” that she could anticipate what smell was coming next (9).

This consistency leads Carlisle to create an “osmology,” a term used by anthropologists to denote how certain peoples use “olfactory perceptions” as a way of ordering the world (9). If odors convey cultural values, then the representation of smell in the 1860s novel can be seen to “constitute a kind of perceptual politics” (11). Hence the narrative introduction of a specific odor into the encounters that take place between characters of differing social status might well verify their inequality. Yet, alternatively, such a meeting can produce a reversal of “conventional valuations when either the superior party to such a meeting or its observer recognizes that they no longer obtain, that the inferior embodies the values that the superior lacks” (11). For example, in Great Expectations Pip smells the scented soap on the hands of the lawyer, Jaggers, during their first meeting when the latter seizes him by the chin to deliver a brief lecture on the naughtiness of boys. But, for Carlisle, while this narrative encounter might ostensibly seem to confirm “the kind of inferiority that Pip’s elders inevitably attribute to him,” it in fact “allows the boy to register his superiority to yet another brow-beating adult” (29). Conversely, a character’s response to smell can betray unacknowledged reciprocities. The hero of Felix Holt may initially think himself above the materiality of bodily sensation, scorning Esther Lyon’s feminine fondness for the scent of dried rose leaves and her refined preference for wax candles over tallow – but, in his ashamed memory, his own earlier debaucheries are associated with the gross smell of uncooked haggis that permeated his lodgings. As Carlisle shrewdly observes of this particular encounter, “noses sometimes know more about what matters than their owners would be able to articulate” (8).

Throughout the book, this osmological method is used to render explicit the anxieties in gender and class relations in a decade that has so often been critically regarded as a high point of self-confidence within the Victorian middle class. In essence, Carlisle’s broad political point is that, in the mid-Victorian novel, the sensory responses to odor “illuminate the often uneasy and contradictory reactions of middle-class culture to its own productive and commercial successes” (18). But her more specific aim, in a Marx-meets-Freud maneuver, is to show how an attentiveness to olfaction discloses the melancholia experienced by the middle-class male character whose own lack of odor denotes his alienation from the means of production. The phases of this argument are staged in four chapters. Accordingly, Chapter One discusses contemporary writings on smell–most notably Alexander Bain’s The Senses and the Intellect (1855)–to demonstrate Victorian psychophysiology’s association of smell with the identification of difference and of inferiority. Those who give off a smell are “lower on a scale of development” than those who do the smelling (29). In the schema of these scientific texts, the odoriferous working classes are inevitably at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Carlisle demonstrates how, to an extent, the osmology of the novels of the 1860s concurs with this denigratory association of smell with work: the odor of the tailor’s shop is recalled with a shudder in Evan Harrington; in Salem Chapel the stench of cheese from the front shop is repugnant. Yet it is her further contention that the mid-Victorian novel’s osmology, with its capacity for reversal, is more subtle and complex than that of science: again, it is Pip who smells Jaggers, not vice versa.

In novel after novel the osmological hierarchy of gender is signaled through women’s association with flowers, the waft of which betrays their fertility. Felix Holt’s dominance over Esther is proclaimed by his noticing the fragrance that confirms her physicality and subordinate status. Yet, as the second chapter goes on to describe, the lack of odor that separates the middle-class male from odorous women and tradesmen leaves him prey to melancholy: “[i]n physical terms, being unmarked may even seem perilously close to not being at all” (49). Working primarily with male characters from Salem Chapel, Evan Harrington and Great Expectations, Carlisle deftly associates male melancholia with a broader set of cultural anxieties whereby melancholy is construed as “a nearly pathological insubstantiality that reflects an unacknowledged loss of direct contact with the products of artisanal labour” (20). Consequently, the third chapter considers the way in which the heroines of novels such as Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family and Anthony Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie are called upon, as the potential wives of male melancholics, to shore up their fragile menfolk with their reproductive bodies and sometimes their property. Ultimately, however, Carlisle demonstrates that, while these novels propose that the love of a good (or fragrant) woman and a life of happy domesticity are the remedy for middle-class masculine anxiety, the cure in fact lies outside the home. Taking John Harmon from Our Mutual Friend as the archetypal melancholic, in Chapter Four Carlisle offers a detailed and fascinating account of the relationship between property and work in the novel in order to argue that Dickens’s depiction of Harmon “demonstrates the extent to which conceptions of respectable Victorian manhood depend on incorporating rather than rejecting working-class physicality” (117). Odorless himself, Harmon is the “unmarked social superior” of the novel’s plot, but he “fails to fulfill the requirements of his role” because he never smells any of the other characters (127). However, Harmon’s tenuous grip on his own sense of self is tightened when he finally seizes Wegg by the throat and knocks his head against the wall. Reaching back to the behaviors of his working-class seaman’s past, he suddenly achieves an affirming physicality that has been absent from his gentlemanly present.

As Carlisle has suggested earlier, an understanding of the mid-Victorian novel’s osmology means that in Harmon’s “display of physical strength ... the negative projection by which [working-class men] are usually understood to contribute to middle-class subjectivity is transformed into a process of embodiment” (21). The political shifts to which Harmon’s assertion of physical power might be seen to gesture are considered in an Afterword in which Carlisle examines Middlemarch, begun by Eliot at the end of the 1860s. Here she discusses the impact of the campaign for, and passage of the 1867 Reform Act that admitted the working-class male, with all his perceived strength and physicality, to the franchise, arguing that the osmology of mid-Victorian fiction provides evidence of the shift in cultural values that made reform possible. While the novel’s action begins in 1829, the conventional “linking of male melancholia, trade, and female substance” in the character of Will Ladislaw in this post-reform novel draws on the osmology of the 1860s (152). But the incorporation of the working-class man into the parliamentary arena after 1867 means that, in embracing a political career, Will exchanges melancholy for substance. Carlisle’s detailed account of the “perceptual politics” of Middlemarch is convincing, providing a fascinating note on which to end this richly allusive book (11).

In the course of reading Common Scents (and not lacking the nose for a pun myself), I began to ponder the origins of the word “sniffy.” According to the OED, the first written record of it as a term to denote contempt, scorn or disdain came in a novel of 1871, Charles Gibbon’s For Lack of Gold. Assuming that Gibbons was no neologist, this earliest known usage at the start of the 1870s suggests that “sniffy” – and the idea of sniffiness – were of accepted but nonetheless recent currency in ordinary discourse. As a relatively new coinage, “sniffy” thus provides vernacular support for Carlisle’s account of the common sense hierarchy of olfaction that had prevailed in the previous decade. It also confirms the perspicacity of her argument in this elegantly written and persuasive book: that one key means to understanding the middle-class anxieties of the 1860s is through an alertness to the mid-Victorian novel’s osmological politics of smell.