As I think back on books that piqued my early interest in fragrance, I can include quite a few examples of “young adult” literature. Like many girls, I was an avid reader of Louisa May Alcott’s work during my pre-teen years—Little Women, of course, but also lesser-known novels like An Old-Fashioned Girl and Eight Cousins.
The heroine of Eight Cousins is Rose Campbell, a recently orphaned girl (and slightly spoiled heiress) who is being raised by her many aunts until her well-traveled Uncle Alec adopts her as his ward and takes over her upbringing. This includes a total overhaul of Rose’s diet and wardrobe, for the benefit of her well-being: oatmeal rather than coffee for breakfast, plenty of fresh air and exercise, no more fancy corset-like belts. (Alcott’s interest in reforming women’s health and dress is evident.)
Uncle Alec persuades Rose to accept his new guidelines by gifting her with a box of souvenirs from his recent journeys—including some fragrance:
Every little girl can easily imagine what an extra good time she had diving into a sea of treasures and fishing up one pretty thing after another, till the air was full of the mingled odours of musk and sandalwood, the room gay with bright colours, and Rose in a rapture of delight. She began to forgive Dr. Alec for the oatmeal diet when she saw a lovely ivory workbox; became resigned to the state of her belt when she found a pile of rainbow-coloured sashes; and when she came to some distractingly pretty bottles of attar of rose, she felt that they almost atoned for the great sin of thinking [servant girl] Phebe the finer girl of the two.
By the time she finished delving to the bottom of her box of presents, Rose
…had stuck a purple fez on her blonde head, tied several brilliant scarfs about her waist, and put on a truly gorgeous scarlet jacket with a golden sun embroidered on the back, a silver moon on the front, and stars of all sizes on the sleeves. A pair of Turkish slippers adorned her feet, and necklaces of amber, coral, and filigree hung about her neck, while one hand held a smelling-bottle, and the other the spicy box of oriental sweetmeats.
As a young reader (and even today, as an adult reader), I enjoyed imagining the colors, tastes, and smells of this scene and taking stock of the treats Rose had received. I’m sure these pages introduced me to the word “attar,” and I do have an ongoing fondness for precious little bottles of rose essence and sandalwood oil, not to mention Turkish Delight and layers of necklaces.
Thanks to the Gutenberg Project, you can read Eight Cousins online here.
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Images: 1955 edition of Eight Cousins, with illustrations by Robert Doremus, via Louisa May Alcott Is My Passion.