- Reading Smell in Eighteenth-Century Fiction by Emily C. Friedman
A hypothetical reviewer might be tempted to describe Reading Smell as presenting a "common scents" approach to eighteenth-century literature. While not inaccurate, perhaps, such light-hearted word-play threatens to distract from the fact that the book takes on some challenging subject matter at the complex juncture between culture and the human sensorium. A growing body of rigorous scholarly work on the human senses and their social contexts (to paraphrase the subtitle of Ann Van Sant's Eighteenth-Century Sensibility and the Novel) invariably raises provocative questions concerning the extent to which sight, sound, touch, taste, and—in this case—smell are mediated by cultural and historical forces. Indeed, the sense of smell raises these questions in productively different ways than the more prominent—and more prominently literary—senses of vision and hearing. As Swift's The Lady's Dressing Room suggests, locating what [End Page 172] stinks in an environment can reveal (some-times uncomfortable) truths. But what the nose registers as invasive stench also varies greatly according to individual and social conditioning, a point not only voiced by eighteenth-century fictional quacks like Dr. Linden in Smollett's Humphry Clinker but also supported by modern scientific research.
Johnson, as reported by Boswell, views smell as a fundamental yet "low" sense, and Hartley in Observations on Man groups smell with taste and touch as lower-order sensations. Current perceptions of olfaction, Ms. Friedman remarks, are not all that different. Science views smelling as a "chemical sense" linked to "the most essential social and survival processes" but also operating "separate from higher-order cognition"; despite the possibility that humans may be able to "distinguish over a trillion scents," there is a noticeable dearth of language, compared to vision and hearing, to describe and categorize the experience. "We do not even have precise words for participating in the act of smelling," she observes, listing "sniffer," "smeller," "stinker," and "smellee" as admittedly imprecise and unsatisfying terms. Odors thus pose unique interpretive challenges, being pervasive and yet largely operating outside conscious awareness and conventional discourse. Smells are omnipresent and embodied, yet also elusive and malleable.
Reading Smell's engaging and wide-ranging introduction touches on these issues as it explores various attempts to exhibit the "osmologies"—or "smell-scapes"—of the past, including a recent effort to reconstruct Marie Antoinette's perfume and thus gain access to what she "smelled like." While Reading Smell is inevitably aligned with these projects—as well as with sense-focused material histories like Alain Corbin's The Foul and the Fragrant (1986) or Emily Cockayne's Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600–1770 (2006)—it is overlaid with a welcome critical awareness of the potential limitations of sensual recovery projects. Attempts to expose audiences to the odors of a Viking village or an eighteenth-century household can elide the fact that what strikes modern noses would be undetected by those immersed in the period and gloss the problematics of reducing history "to a single sniffable snapshot."
In lieu of promising the undeliverable, Ms. Friedman offers instead to "begin to recover what such scents meant to those who perceived them," and so she embraces a more modest but more attainable and worthwhile aim: to "write about the scents that were in a period of change, and those which culture seemed most attentive to." On this front, Reading Smell is broadly successful.
Individual chapters offer particular insights while contributing to a wider map of changing relations to smell in the literature and culture of the eighteenth century. Chapter 1, "Clouds of Smoke, Huffs of Snuff," explores the range of meanings attributed to tobacco consumption. While smoking tobacco rendered users (and fictional characters) odorous to others, and leaned toward male usage, snuff-taking was aligned more with women and fops (with exceptions). Inhaling snuff also had the effect of producing "anosmia," an insensitivity to surrounding smells. Chapter 2, "Running to the Smelling Bottle," explores representations of the smelling-bottle or "personal scenting device...