History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

11 June 2010

Of Sense and Sensuality -- and the Original Sinful Fruit

I'm having much too much guilty, craftsy fun these days, as I put the finishing touches on my contribution to Brenda Novak's recently completed auction for diabetes research. It's Pam Rosenthal's Sense and Sensuality Gift Basket, a gleaning of the sweet and sexy scents and flavors evoked by certain moments in my romance novels.

Moments like...

~ when Joseph, hero of The Bookseller's Daughter, wakes up in Marie-Laure's bed under bunches of herbs hung from the eaves to dry:

He sniffed: rosemary and lavender. And something else, spicy as cinnamon, tart as lemon. A woman. The sheets of her bed smelled like her. (Which tiny excerpt is affixed -- with curly ribbon, naturellement -- to a little packet of chocolates, infused with rosemary and lavender, lemon and cinnamon.

~ Or when Phoebe, heroine of Almost a Gentleman, remembers what it was like the first time she kissed David, Earl of Linseley:

...sweet as toffee, heady as tobacco, dark as earth... (The curly ribbon this time wrapped around the neck of a bottle of delicious unisex fragrance. It's called "Butch." And it's sold -- most appropriately, if you know about the gender play in Almost a Gentleman -- in a great little San Francisco store called Nancy Boy.)

There are beeswax candles and herbal bath salts redolent of the bathtub scene in The Edge of Impropriety... exquisitely flavored French macaroons that call to memory the banquet in The Bookseller's Daughter...

...and more, including an apple-scented bath and shower gel I hadn't planned to get but which I had to have when I saw it.

Because apple is probably the sharpest, most pervasive flavor of The Slightest Provocation: from the raw one that eleven-year-old Mary steals from her family's sideboard to share with twelve-year-old Kit; to the cooked ones inside the French tarte tatin over which a grown-up Mary and Kit seduce each other in Calais; to the fermented ones used to make the apple brandy in the bottle a furious Mary pitches at Kit later that night.

It's the original sinful fruit, as I once mused in a post to the (now sadly defunct) blog for erotic historical romance writers, The Spiced Tea Party. "Perhaps it's the irrevocability of that first crunchy bite that gets everybody's attention," I wrote. "Once you've pierced the bright red or green skin with your teeth, there's no hiding what you've done, no going back."

Perhaps. Though I wasn't consciously thinking of any of that when I wrote The Slightest Provocation. Fortunately for everyone, I wasn't trying to write "symbolically," which (trust me) never works; I didn't have to try, because, as I wrote in the Spiced post, "the cultural resonance has been so obvious, so everpresent," the apple evoking temptation and transgression since Eve, since the apples of immortality of Norse and Celtic mythologies, since Sappho and since the Apple of Discord that started the Trojan War. Writing about Mary and Kit's temptations and transgressions, I needed only keep my inner ear open to the braided mixed messages of the culture.

Cultural messages are always mixed, as much a matter of passionate improvisation and profound misreading as direct transmission. From Frank Browning's deliciously informative book, Apples, I learned that in the original Hebrew Book of Genesis, "the nature of the tree of all knowledge was left vague," While in the Greek texts, the word for apple is melon and the Latin is malum.

After the fall of Rome, when the only repository of classical learning (save the Muslims on the Iberian peninsula, as hoyden Lynna often reminds us) were the great Irish and Benedictine monasteries. And according to Browning's sources, the Irish translators of the Bible were not only taken by the similarity of the words for apple and evil, but influenced by the ubiquitous pre-Christian Celtic mythologies of apples as the source of knowledge and revelation.

"In effect," Browning concludes," the placement of the apple in the Garden of Eden is one of the most clearly pagan acts in the development of Christianity."

Not to speak of the age-old association of power, knowledge and sexuality, that continues to weave itself though everything I write.

And how about you?

Readers: are there certain thematics and aromatics that enrich your enjoyment of romance and other fiction?

Writers: do you call upon these themes and sense impressions when you write?

Anyone (but probably especially writers): what kinds of fun, time-wasting things do you find to do with your hands when you should be doing something else?

And for anyone who didn't win my gift basket (and because this Sunday's my birthday), here are a few more offerings:

~ A link to the original Spiced Tea Party post, with its discussion of Sappho's extraordinary poem about reaching for apples.

~ A link to one of the most wonderful of the cultural messages I try to keep my inner ear open to: Yeats's "The Song of Wandering Aengus" with its own eternal gorgeous reaching through the Celtic twilight toward "the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun."

~ And (if you'll permit me) a link to my own web page -- because I've decided to offer another Sense and Sensuality Basket, this time as a contest prize.

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Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Oh, Pam, provocative as always, and this time, redolent, too! I love the title of your post because the original title of BY A LADY, my time-travel romp that features Jane Austen as a supporting character was SENSE AND SENSUALITY. My editor deemed it "too arch." Well, yeah, maybe, but I loved it. And still do.

Aromas and odors constantly inform my writing and a whiff of something (back to Proust's madeleines, peut-etre?) can send my memory careening back to another time and place, relationship, etc. Even now when I detect the scent of Ralph Lauren's Polo on a man, I remember exactly ... well, TMI.

The aromas of baking, of cinnamon, clove, chocolate and coffee affect my mood; and when it comes to being sidetracked from my writing by another creative inspiration, baking is one of my prime outlets. I also do needlework (I knit sweaters, crochet afghans, and do a lot of needlepoint). But there I find that it focuses my mind on my writing rather than distracts it, even though I'm not doing any writing at the time.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Too arch, Leslie. Brings my mind back to the time I first tried to write Regency-speak. "It's... arch, I think," I told my husband.

I'm clumsy with my hands, but I do love simply putting lovely things next to each other... so the basket has been a delightful surprise to me.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Fabulous and thought-provoking post as usual, Pam.

I usually pick scents to associate with my hero and heroine at the beginning of writing their story. Scent memory is such a strong instinct, especially when it comes to sensuality.

5:46 PM  
Blogger peggy said...

I love the fresh coffee scents.scents of candles .while I'm reading.

9:44 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks, Louisa. I don't usually think enough, perhaps of male scents, which is a shame. Especially when I realized how much I liked the "Butch" stuff -- made with cardamom, sandlewood, and yes, tobacco (can you tell that I've never entirely stopped mourning my old cigarette habit?)

And peggy -- coffee and candles when reading sounds lovely.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Oh I know, Pam. One of the girls in my local writers group makes and sells soaps. She has brought soaps and oils of the male scents most often associated with the Regency for me to smell. Cardamon and sandlewood are fabulous scents. Real bay rum is too. And I LOVE the smell of pipe tobacco. I have never smoked, but I have spent many an afternoon in a tobacco shop inhaling the different tobaccos. (The older of my two baby brothers smokes a pipe and I used the excuse that I am shopping for him.

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Lynna Banning said...

Pam, Yeats' "Song of Wandering Aengus" is my favorite poem and has a romantic resonance in my (early) love life: sitting before the fire (no other light) with my mountain-climber-forest-ranger-writer man in his cabin in the Grand Tetons and hearing him read to me that wonderful poem. Always wondered why I didn't marry him!

10:41 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fabulous post, Pam! I loved using scent to set a scene or evoke a mood or conjure up a memory. I found myself doing a lot in "Vienna Waltz" with the smells of coffee and chocolate. The new book I'm starting begins on a June night in Brussels and a couple of the early scenes are set in gardens, so I've used floral and earth scents. I also seem to spend a fair amount of time on each book trying to think up perfume and shaving soap scents for various characters (in a mystery, a lingering whiff of scent can be a vital clue).

12:43 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for sharing that bit about the guy and the Yeats poem, Lynna. It might be my favorite poem too.

And Tracy, you're making me look forward to being in Brussels this summer for the IASPR conference (Internation Association for the Study of Popular Romance). Just the thought of it has inspired a possible Waterloo scene in a possible future book.

8:29 AM  

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