In Natsume Soseki’s 1909 novel Sore Kara (‘And then…’) the main protagonist Daisuke – a pretence-addled, fraught, yet indolent aesthete whose descent into madness forms the core of the novel – has a predilection for sleeping in the aroma of delicate flowers to negate life’s sordid realities. Being affected by the ordinary physical world with ‘inordinate severity’, this neurasthenic book collector ‘employed a faint, lightly sweet floral scent as part of this strategy to reduce contacts to a minimum; the flowers beside his pillow would gradually lure his restless consciousness into the world of dreams.”
The flowers: “snowy white lilies-of-the-valley, their stems still uncut.”
These form an important motif in the novel, but not merely for their pristine beauty and virgin whiteness: they come almost to be seen as a metaphor for repression. We learn that in his youth Daisuke had instead loved lilies, when his natural self, now asphyxiating under layers of intellectualization, had a happier, sensual abandon. If the smell of a lily is crass, the anaphrodisiac ‘purity’ of the lilies-of-the-valley is like a foil to his deeper libidinal urges, signalling a more civilized, sober view of the world.
He falls in love with his best friend’s wife (or rather he has always been in love with her, since long before their marriage, but has been too cowardly to act on it until this moment of crisis), another hypersensitive creature called Michiyo. She one day brings him a bouquet of lilies in a passionate gesture to renew their old friendship. But Daisuke, now, ‘could not bear to keep the oppressively heavy smell, which permeated the space between the two’.
In perfumery, some may feel the same about the stargazing pungency of lilies, their perfumed stench. In contrast, muguet, or lily-or-the-valley (also known as ‘Our Lady’s Tears’, since the sorrowful tears that Mary shed at the cross are said to have turned to lilies-of-the-valley) has probably the most unblemished purity of all the floral scents – at least on the surface.
They are not merely chaste. A muguet perfume has flesh under its perfect green/white veneer, which is why on the right girl this genre of scent can be tantalizing. In an exquisite passage in the novel, Michiyo, having come to the house, weak and thirsty on a hot summer’s afternoon, requests a glass of water. The doomed lovers talk a while, but once he is out of sight, she can hold herself no longer and drinks from the flower bowl: a gesture that seems to almost deflower the blooms, yet restores her. He returns and stands aghast as she smiles:
‘Thank you. I’ve had plenty. I drank some of that….it was so beautiful..’
DIORISSIMO / CHRISTIAN DIOR (1956)
The porcelain flowers – little white bells, with gentle crenellations – hang vulnerably from their stems, yet a sense of prim entitlement pervades the whole. There is probably no flower more vernal, nor infuriatingly perfect, than the lily-of-the-valley, the scent so angelical and sweet it seems almost not of this world.
The flowers retain this brilliance to the last, taking their little cups of nectar to the grave (they will not yield their scent). The idea then, of master perfumer Edmond Roudnitska in his rooms overlooking a garden he had planted full of muguet to study (to render their bouquet as true to life as humanly possible), is inspiring – the painstaking painting of a flower in perfume.
The portrait he created – Diorissimo – is still, in the perfumer’s world, the muguet. Christian Dior’s beloved flower was the emblem of the house and the fragrance a sensation – women the world over reaching for their sprays of perpetual spring. Streams of cool, diaphanous lily-of-the-valley emerge from the bottle in a sparkling floral bouquet that is startlingly lifelike and fresh, while more fleshy, skin-like tones (a gently indolic jasmine) lie beneath to create a fully three-dimensional flower girl.
The classic muguet may not be such a fashionable note now, but Diorissimo’s timelessness and cruel beauty (it smells so much better on the young) should ensure this perfume’s survival through this century and beyond.
MUGUET DE BONHEUR/ CARON (1952)
Despite all the praise (justifiably) heaped on Diorissimo, it is probably one of the last perfumes on earth I would wear. It is often said, among the perfume cognoscenti, that men can wear almost anything except tuberose. Wrong: I carry off that flower with aplomb. But I would never wear a muguet – unless it were Caron’s lovely Muguet de Bonheur. Though many fragrance lovers don’t rate it as highly as others of the type (this is not a straight rendition of the flowers, and probably why I like it more), this creamy, savon muguet, with its lightly done strokes of lilac and rose, is a polished escape, light as breeze.
Fantastic on warm spring days by the sea (along the promenade, in Yokohama’s Yamashita park).
LILY OF THE VALLEY/ PENHALIGONS (1976)
‘The Age of innocence’, Edith Wharton’s tale of repressed love and stifling manners in turn of the century New York, opens on an opera performance. May Welland, the dull, conventional girl that Newland Archer is set to marry, is sat at her box, clutching a large bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley. It is a detail that encapsulates perfectly the nubile respectability of this young creature, in telling contrast with the sultry Countess Elenska (and her rooms that smell of strange exotic incense and decaying roses). In her dress, new for the occasion, I imagine May would have smelled like this English muguet: fresh and verdant; smiling, hands clasped, as Newland, relishing his prize, looks on:
“She dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her knee, and Newland Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tips touch the flowers softly. He drew a breath of satisfied vanity, and his eyes returned to the stage.”
DON’T GET ME WRONG, BABY, I DON’T SWALLOW/ ETAT LIBRE D’ORANGE (2007)
‘It all starts with a hand on the nape of a neck. The hand of a man familiar with the practice of attracting young women, accustomed to crumpling their sleek hair and to getting the better of their well behaved manners.’
Supposedly the story of the woman who resists, but finally ‘relents’ to giving head, the beginning of this scent is similar to Diorissimo, but with guts (there’s something there, in the back…) And what we find that to be is a chocolatey, lascivious marshmallow (the swirl of her tongue, the ‘rousing sensation of her back and forth.’)
But is it worth wearing? Without gimmickry (the Lichtenstein pastiche of the artwork, the salacious spiel of ‘the American kiss’), would we wear this sperm-laden muguet?
If you like the classic type, yes. But like all the Libre d’Oranges, you sense something icky in the backdrop, like a waitress, spitting in a salad.
LE MUGUET / ANNICK GOUTAL (2001)
Three dimensional, gorgeously breathy lily-of-the-valley which doesn’t hold back on lyrical romanticism. Makes many of the type look thin and tight-fisted in comparison with its rosy-appled cheeks, but possibly goes overboard in its true-life depiction of every aspect of the flower. For muguet purists and starry-eyed brides.
LILY OF THE VALLEY/ FLORIS (200*/ 1847, original formula)
A fine yet timid rendition by Floris, in the best hotel bath-towel tradition. Pure, crisp lily-of-the-valley flowers make a cool, youthful and beautifully English scent that is respectable – resolutely so – yet somewhat melancholic.
MUGUET DES BOIS/ COTY (1942) Inexpensive, yet classically rendered muguet with a tremendous reputation. Unfortunately discontinued now but easy to find online.
LILY/ COMME DES GARCONS (2000) Another attempt to make muguet fashionable for the younger set, this is a pure, green muguet/ white lily fragrance that is impressively vivid and new smelling, if a touch holier-than-thou.