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

  • Ella Dzelzainis

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  • Ella Dzelzainis
    Birkbeck, University of London

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 …