18 April, 2006

Sense of smell in historical fiction

Historical fiction got a rare mention on Miss Snark yesterday. Someone had received a rejection letter for their historical romance that said, "the style throughout was flat and unevocative and often sounded quite contemporary".

Miss Snark suggested that the writer might have described visual appearance at the expense of the other senses, and advised, "Smell is the most overlooked description in novels, and historical novels lend themselves to this quite nicely."

This made me stop and think. Why would historical fiction lend itself especially to descriptions of smell? Do you think it does? Is this something you look for to give a sense of time and place? Is it always a good thing or can it be over-used/mis-used?

Here are a couple of examples I can think of, one that I thought worked well and one that I thought added little if anything.

In The Last English King, by Julian Rathbone, there's a scene in which Edward the Confessor is dying of the complications of diabetes, including a necrotic leg ulcer. The bishop (I think it's a bishop) stumbles out of the chamber, handkerchief over his mouth, and murmurs, "I suppose that was the odour of sanctity." That works for me on several levels: there's a dry touch of gallows humour, which always attracts me; it tells me something about the bishop's character and his relationship with the king; and it conveys how horribly disgusting the disease is and what a miserable way it would be to go. But the only specifically historical detail is the comment about the "odour of sanctity". The smell itself, like the disease, could be from any age.

Last year I read a historical novel in which the writer never missed an opportunity to describe the stink of middens and latrines, which regularly made the heroine feel sick and/or swoony. (I can't remember what the book was or I'd attribute it; it was medieval, it wasn't Elizabeth Chadwick, and the constant harping on latrines is the only other thing I can remember about it). This didn't work for me. It was tedious after the first repetition, and I'm not sure what it was intended to tell me, except perhaps that the heroine had rather modern sensibilities. I found it odd, since I imagine that the people of the time (i.e. the characters, including the heroine) would be accustomed to the smell of a midden and would no more notice it than I notice the smell of exhaust fumes. It seemed to have no particular significance except description for description's sake, and unlike descriptions of period clothes, jewellery, architecture etc, it wasn't specific to the setting and gave me no particular sense of time and place.

So what do you think? Is smell a sense that is particularly important in historical fiction, more so than in other types of fiction? If so, why - or why not - and have you any favourite examples?

13 comments:

ali said...

One of the best historical novels I've ever read, in terms of giving you a sense of what it was like to live then, was The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price. But I don't think she ever described the latrines - it was all food, clothes, the heroine's lover, and things like that - things that she probably would smell, even if she was adjusted to that period.

But she also described sounds, sights, tastes, and other feelings very well.

I think it's more about building an atmosphere than just describing senses - making the reader feel that this is a real world, which really does exist. And making the reader feel that they know what it would be like to be in that world.

Rick said...

My first reaction was to laugh, because of the general belief that the past stank. Probably it did, but as you say, people of the time expected it. I agree with you on both your examples - "odour of sanctity" gets several things evocatively right at once, while I don't have to be told that outhouses smell bad.

I'll add that I do not trust Miss Snark on the subject of historical fiction! I don't think she handles it, or has any real feel for it. Her comments on fiction in general are worth their weight in gold, but should be discounted sometimes when specific to particular genres she doesn't have affinity for.

Gabriele C. said...

I agree that you should only add details - olfactory or other - when the character would indeed notice them. There's plenty of chances to do so.

Any character growing up with fireplaces could tell the differnt smell of birch and pine wood and may note it. A tribal warrior visiting a Roman fort will notice a number of things a Roman character would take for granted. And even a Mediaeval lady used to the stench of the outhouse might notice the big fat worms crawling in the chesspit with disgust and decide to have the serf clean out the mess. Just make those scenes fit naturally into the flow of the story.

Bragging with an example of my own. *grin* (The Charioteer, after Ciaran has been flogged):

The stink of stale urine and sweat that emanated from the windowless room brought Ciaran close to vomiting again. "I ... I can't go in there," he whispered.

"You must. You'll need the warmth and you'll need to lie down so that I can see to your wounds." The slave put a reassuring hand on Ciaran's arm. "I know it's bad. The door's locked at night. But we can leave it open now."

There was more to it than the smell. Ciaran inhaled a last deep breath of fresh air and crossed the threshold. With the help of the men he lowered himself stomach down on a plank bed. His whole body throbbed. The elderly slave sent the other man off the fetch clean linen, warm water and some other things, then knelt down besides the bed and carefully removed the plaid that stuck to the wounds on Ciaran's back. Ciaran winced.

"Shhh, it'll be better soon. I know a bit about herbs and poultices and such."

Ciaran closed his eyes. The straw-stuffed matress smelled mouldy and felt coarse on the skin of his cheek. Not even in winter, when only the firehole used to be open all time, would the huts of his tribe develop a stench like that; people used to air the furs on clear days and added herbs to the sleeping places that kept away the bugs.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I think ALL the senses are important to historical fiction, not just smells. Much of the time the reader is being given a world that doesn't exist any more. The senses are bridge builders between our world and theirs. Obviously a character who goes overboard at the smell of a latrine or midden or something that would have been common place to his or her time, is going to pull many readers out of the story. Sometimes smells did get noticed and grumbled about - the reason tanneries were usually on the edge of towns!
also the reason Henry III had a new privy built somewhere or other - Dover? I remember reading he didn't like the whiff from the existing one. As Gabrielle says, the smells should fit naturally into the story. As Ali says it's all about building atmosphere. I can't think of any particular 'smell' example from a novel at the moment, but I know I must have plenty on my keeper shelf as I love novels with that sensual aspect.
I agree about your piece from Rathbone Carla. I suppose I ought to give The Last English King another try. I wall banged it last time for inaccuracies and because I was a trifle irked by the comment in his author's note that inaccuracies he hadn't noticed were fair game for 'swots, anoraks and letter writers.'
Coupled with what I heard him say at a talk of his I attended (that he'd dashed off The Last English King in a rush because you really didn't need to do that much research for an 11thC novel and he was close to deadline, what he really wanted to write was a juicy 18thC novel where there was more research available than five books) it put me right off. However, I liked the general writing style

Alex Bordessa said...

Sense of smell - I absolutely don't bother unless it is (to the character/s) unusual to them in some way. For example, the smell of the sea was unusual for one of my characters as they hadn't been to the coast before.

The general historical niff level would only be worthy of comment to a time traveller.

Alex Bordessa said...

Oh, if it was a particularly welcomed smell, I might include it - like food cooking, the fragrance of a loved place or person.

Bernita said...

I agree with Gabriele - only if they fit.
Get really, really tired of dissertations on stinks and miasmas from garderobes , etc.and the automatic assumption that everything and everyone stunk to high heaven.
People did bath. Garderobes were cleaned.
Some places had remarkable plumbing. Depending on the type of moat, they weren't all stagnant.
I have mentioned wool, maille, wood smoke, furs, dogs, cooking and horse manure, but I didn't make any great point about them.
It's a very interesting topic though.

Carla said...

Can I recommend you all have a look at Gabriele's thoughtful comment on the original post?

So far there seems to be a strong consensus here that what's important is building a world that feels real - using all five senses - and that smells, like any other description, are most effective when they do something to move the plot along, build the world, or convey something significant about a character's background, feelings, reactions or situation. As Gabriele says, it can be an important clue to cultural difference, as people from one culture will notice odours that people from another don't.

Elizabeth - I didn't mind Rathbone's cavalier comment on his research because he was up-front about it, so I knew to treat the book as if it were, say, a Terry Pratchett and judge it purely on whether it was a good read. I was already warned not to expect to get any real history out of it. Does what it says on the tin.

Odd that you should mention tanneries, as I have a character on the run deliberately divert through a tannery on the grounds that no hound will be able to follow his trail through there.

Sophisticated plumbing has a surprisingly long history. The Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae on Orkney (approx. 2000-3000 BC) is thought to have had a drainage system that incorporated internal toilet facilities. (Something the inhabitants would have quite an incentive to develop, considering the winter weather on Orkney).

Bernita said...

An odd thought regarding that condition - synesthesia? - not sure of the proper name - for those who see smells as colours or shapes.
Wonder if this would add orginality to descriptions of smells.
Gabriele's advice is excellent for all the senses.

Carla said...

Synesthesia (synaesthesia in UK spelling) is the correct term. It covers any condition where one sense is experienced as another, e.g. people hear colours, see sounds, etc. I don't think it's fully understood but it's probably best thought of as a sort of neurological crossed wiring, e.g. the input from the olfactory nerves is somehow getting processed in the visual cortex.

I've sometimes seen descriptions in fiction along those lines - I think CS Lewis described an island as having "a deep, purple kind of smell" and Dorothy Parker describes an actress' voice as "a deep, soft, glowing voice" and adds the simile "like purple velvet" (Glory in the Daytime, if memory serves).

Gabriele C. said...

I have synaesthesia, but it's not connected to smells. I see letters and numbers in colour. Every letter has a colour of its own, and the combination of colours gives every word a certain shade, or aura. It's difficult to explain. I once talked about it in a Writer's chat and then everyone wanted to know how I 'saw' their name, but those auras are so subtle it's not easy to give a good description.

I think not only should sensual experiences fit into the story (that is, a character would only notice them under certain circumstances), you can also use them deliberately to enhance characterisiation. Ciaran, who has spent the last two years in a Roman upper class household with baths, will of course, notice the smell of unwashed bodies but there is more behind it: the change of his life the smell of the slave quarters represents. When he later works in the stables, he's going to find the smell of horses comforting, a memory from home. He would never have noticed their smell before, in a different context, because horses have always been part of his world.

The little addition about the huts of his tribe I used to question the prejudice that 'barbarian' people had no hygiene whatsoever. I can't prove they changed their bedding and used herbs but I think there's a good chance they did. And Ciaran, only half conscious after the flogging, could let his thoughts wander that way.

There's a reason I'm a slow writer. I think too much. :)

Though often something just comes into my mind while writing (as the stench of the slave quarter did), and I later think about how to make the best use of an idea.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Lots of interesting comments about smells in HF. Obviously Romans sitting chatting in their communal toilets with their sponges on sticks didn't mind the associated communal pong. Nowadays we don't like anything to smell unless it smells of perfume.

But seriously, smell does seem to be especially powerful in evoking period in historical fiction. In a recent post on my blog I reviewed "Spies" by Michael Frayn. The story is triggered by a pungent smell from the main character's World War II childhood.

But how do novelists evoke things like the silence and night-time darkness of the past for many, many readers like me who live in places polluted by artificial light at night and traffic noise 24 hours a day?

Carla said...

Gabriele - it does seem likely that people would have changed bedding and used bug-repellent plants if possible.

Sarah C - I read your review of Spies with interest and will look out for the book. Isn't that a case of a smell being important to a character, rather like Gabriele's comment about the smell of horses reminding Ciaran of his childhood? Smells are particularly evocative because the olfactory nerves plug directly into the limbic system, a very old (you could say 'primitive') brain structure that controls emotional responses. This is why a smell can take you back so strongly and so vividly. The other senses are processed in the cerebral cortex (the 'thinking' bit of the brain) and so don't have this hotline to the emotions that smell has.

Interesting question about evoking silence and darkness. Although a country night isn't silent; there are birds and animals about, the sound of the wind, the house creaking, branches tapping, maybe running water in a stream, and so on. I'd guess a novelist would evoke that environment by describing some of those sounds, especially if a character was listening out for something or was alerted by an unusual sound. A bird flying out of its roost in the middle of the night might warn of the presence of intruders, for example? Maybe the same sort of approach to the absence of artificial light. Moonlight is bright enough to walk by, and I tend to be aware of the phase of the moon if I'm hiking in winter, because I know a full moon gives me a safety margin on the daylight, whereas if it's cloudy or moonless I'm going to be reliant on the headtorch. Jane Austen makes a casual reference to people choosing the period around the full moon for evening engagements. For what it's worth (!) I try to do it the same way; characters alter their behaviour depending on whether there's moonlight, and listen for and react to sounds that would be drowned out in modern noise but that are important in their environment. Does this make sense?