Book Scents: Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion


I’ve been under the weather for the past week with one of those awful colds that are going around (please everyone, rest up, wash your hands a lot and take your Vitamin C) so I haven’t been doing a lot of writing or smelling, but I’ve been doing plenty of reading. I first read Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion  nearly ten years ago.  I was dazzled, seduced–then disaffected. I wanted my literature to have a firm grip on the world’s pain and Winterson’s beautiful surfaces and playfulness struck me as cheating, somehow.  Or maybe I just felt foolish for liking them so much…


I returned to The Passion this week because I’ve been thinking a lot about fairy tales–why and how we tell them, and what our modern versions look like. I feel differently about dazzle now, and this time around The Passion‘s gorgeous magic struck me as a poignant, necessary counterpart to the equally unbelievable extremes of war. (Which is easier to believe–that Russia’s soldiers and citizens would willingly burn down their own villages and cities in order to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte? Or that a beautiful red-haired Venetian with webbed feet could lose her heart–literally–to a mysterious married woman?) And I could see the way Winterson keeps pitting the creative forces of trickery, illusion, invention and chance against the relentless machinery of money and violence. Creation doesn’t always win. In fact, it often loses. But it always, always, always survives.


I mention all this because, toward the end of the book, I came across a marvelous passage featuring the magic, the “aromas of pleasure and danger,” of perfume. It’s not a throwaway reference. Winterson uses the magic of scent to mark one of the books most daring feats of magic.  The beautiful Venetian sends her friend Henri (formerly Napoleon’s chicken cook) to fetch her heart from her ex-lover’s house. Check in unlikely places, she advises, and listen carefully. As in all the best fairy tales, Henri opens a series of doors, each room containing objects stranger and more fabulous than the last. But when he reaches the right one he knows it by its smell:


The eighth room had only a billiard table and a little room leading off at one side. I was drawn to this door and, opening it, found it to be a vast walk-in closet racked with dresses of every kind, smelling of musk and incense. A woman’s room. Here, I felt no fear. I wanted to bury my face in the clothes and lie on the floor with the smell about me…Around the sides of the room were ebony boxes, monogrammed. I opened one and found it packed with little glass phials. Inside were the aromas of pleasure and danger. Each phial contained at most five drops and so I judged them to be essences of great value and potency. Hardly thinking, I put one in my pocket and turned to leave. As I did so, a noise stopped me. A noise not like the sound of mice or beetles. A regular steady noise, like a heartbeat…





  1. I think that awful cold that is going around is the flu. I felt like crap for 2 weeks. It’s supposedly extra-virulent this year.


  2. What a beautiful passage – makes me want to run right out and read this book. I love, love, love fairy tales and can’t believe I missed this one! Thanks for sharing, and feel better soon!


  3. Mmm, love that paragraph, especially the bit “….. smelling of musk and incense. A woman’s room.” It seems like most of the time we perfumistas see incense as more unisex, but my other half loves Black Cashmere on me because he says it smells like my natural smell, just amped up a bit. I wouldn’t have thought a person’s natural smell could be a spice/woodsy combo, but that’s what he says. It’s nice to think of incense as feminine.


    • When I imagine the feminine incense in the passage I think of the Eastern practice of using incense smoke to scent hair and fabric, so the scent is always mingled with the smell of human warmth. Definitely a more intimate smell than the church incense that is the more common Western reference.

      I may own a back up bottle of Black Cashmere. *coughormorethanonecough*


  4. Mary Stephens Mitchell

    It seems that fairy tales in general are in the general zeitgeist right now, but we women have always loved them. It was Joseph Campbell (I think) who said that fairy tales are women’s mythology. So I think it’s natural that women turn back to them every so often., whether in the old classic form or the modern.

    I wonder if we are unconsciously choosing an archetype when we choose our perfume for the day? I’m wearing Aromatics Elixir – perhaps the ‘creator’ archetype?

    I do hope you feel well soon, Alyssa!


    • Thank you for your good wishes, Mary! I am 95% back in action now–just bearing up under seasonal allergies.

      That’s an interesting idea about perfume and archetypes. I definitely think of perfume as a way to make my fantasy selves more tangible.


  5. Good GOD how I adore that book! I too read it about 10 years ago first. It is such a book of sensual knowledge, emotion, and truth. Stunning and playful, and inspiring!


    • I’m glad to find another fan! I wonder if you would find the book different now, ten years later? Or what you think of Winterson’s other work.


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