Friday, May 30, 2008

Scents and Sexuality, part II: Lotus-Eating in the Late Regency

When I was a very little girl, the final step in the ritual of getting dressed up was to “put on a little perfume.” I loved the romantic names of the scents, the sensuous shapes of the bottles on the dressing table, mysterious ritual of dabbing the stuff behind my ears – as I’d been taught to do -- and (particularly) on the insides of my wrists. And I adored the momentary shudder of the cold alcohol on my skin.

But why those places on my skin?

Why ears? Wrists?

I wondered but I never asked, as though not to tamper with something important. Because even the tiniest child doesn’t need to be told that some parts of her body are more special, more interesting than others.

I think – though I’m still not sure this is true -- that the point of the wrist thing is that that’s where the pulse is. Ears, I still don't know. But the truth is that I prefer not knowing for sure. I think what I particularly like is the ritual mystery, the bare, unexplained fetishism of it.

I like the slow attention to detail -- the primitivism, if you will, that we devote to body care.

And when body care is shared between lovers…?

When routine and ritual become the rules of the game…?

And when erotic power struggle roils just below the surface…?

That's when I like to write about it, as in this excerpt from my forthcoming novel, The Edge of Impropriety, available this November -- in which, gentlemanlike, my hero Jasper Hedges, has come to the aid of a person in need, to find himself and his sore muscles in my heroine Marina Wyatt’s bathtub.

The plumbing’s rather progressive for the late Regency era but hardly impossible.

And the scent rising from the steamy water?

It’s lotus. Ancient. Intense. A bit astringent. I bought a tiny vial of essential lotus oil to find out what it’s actually like and it turns out rather compelling.

As well it should be. For in legend it kept the classical hero Ulysses and his men lingering with the lotus-eaters when they should have been trying to get home to Ithaca.

And as Jasper is a scholar and collector of Greek antiquities (why fight it? I find brainy men overwhelmingly sexy). And as Regency Britons were nearly worshipping all things classical…

Well, anyway, here's a tiny taste of my take on eros and empire, in a lady’s bathtub at The Edge of Impropriety:

She resumed… probing and kneading… the knotted muscles and tendons.

It hurt a bit [he thought…]. It hurt quite wonderfully. As though the warm blood had once again begun coursing through his back and shoulders.

Perhaps it had -- as indeed the blood seemed to be coursing more quickly to other parts of his body as well. He opened his eyes, glanced down past his belly to his knees rising out of the suds. And then finally, to another perturbation of the water’s surface.

If perturbation it could be called.
[While…] on her knees […] at the side of the tub, Marina lathered up a large sea sponge. Pretty, she thought, all the little rainbow bubbles, a few of them floating upward until they popped from the heat from the candles.

She’d wash him slowly, beginning with his hands, lingering over the fine bones in his wrists […]. She moved the sponge up each arm in turn -- to his shoulders, and now down his chest, following the dark smoky line of hair down his lean belly…

The head of his cock showed itself above the water’s the surface. She watched it dreamily. Like a lotus, she thought, rising from the water where it grows.

She bent over to brush her lips against it. Her lips, and then the tip of her tongue. And then, not quite intending to, her lips again.

But -- she chided herself -- she needed to stop, groan as he might in protest.

All innocence, she sent him a mildly aggrieved glance -- I simply can’t imagine what might be troubling you -- and cleared her throat.

“Ahem. Let’s see to your feet, shall we? Of course you already know I’m rather particular as to a gentleman’s feet…”

He groaned again […].

She returned a suitably evil laugh. Fun to tease him, and in truth, she did rather like his feet -- long, narrow, with high arches and straight toes. Not too hairy, either. She lifted one out of the water, to wash it carefully, especially beneath the toes. One and then the other one, before she moved up to his shins, knees, thighs.

Eventually -- and happily -- she’d get around to where he wanted her to be.

But not before she worked a little at the muscles in his thighs. She though of how stiffly he’d stepped into her hallway and she remembered how he’d tensed his upper legs, yesterday when he’d lifted the cart. Surely he could use a little massaging there, to work out the achiness. She put aside the sponge, to use her fingertips.

The problem was that she didn’t want to hurt him by putting too much weight on the hurt places.

He was watching closely. “Careful,” he muttered.

She promised herself she would be. Wonderful, she thought, a man’s lean limbs, the finely defined shapes of the separate long muscles.

He grimaced. Oh dear. She rose higher on her knees, to get a better angle. Balancing on her haunches, she leaned over him, intent upon keeping her touch firm but even.


But how could she be careful when suddenly she’d been immobilized? She tried to pull against him, to twist out of his insistent grip.

When had he grasped her forearms so tightly, one in each large sun-browned hand?

Why was he grinning, his blue eyes gleeful, alight?

And how -- with a cry of triumph on his part, some choking and sputtering on hers, and amid great, splashing tides of sudsy water -- had he managed to tumble her into the tub on top of him?

Much better,” he told her, “but move your left leg, won’t you, Marina, over to the other side of me. Come on, climb up, don’t worry about squeezing me. I assure you that a little muscle ache is nothing compared with those well-intentioned discomforts you’ve been inflicting upon me. In fact, please squeeze, ah, yes, that’s right, that’s…”

That’s… perfect, she whispered, as best she could through her gasps and giggles. Perfect, he whispered the word back into her ear and crooned it against her neck, as he entered her and as she slipped and grasped and tightened herself around him, and then straightened her back to sit astride him.

And it was perfect, she thought. No matter if soapy water were in truth a highly imperfect lubricant of a woman’s private parts, she seemed to have done quite well for herself […].

But that’s it for now, and that’s where I’m leaving Jasper and Marina. And you, with the hope that you’ll want to read the whole book when it comes out this November.

And as for my question… Well, what scents – or even what names and myths and legends of scents – provoke your… imagination?

[apologies from Pam--she's on the road and will post pics later]


Lil said...

What an absolutely lovely excerpt. The Vietnamese make a Lotus tea. They the lotus blossoms with green tea so that the flower's scent is imparted...but the strength of the fragrance and flavor does not last long so people only buy this tea in small quantities to use while it is at it's peak.

The most wonderful scents to me are jasmine and orange flower though I have no idea or myths/stories behind those.

Kate Pearce said...

Loved your excerpt! Can't wait for the book-failed to win it over at the Brenda Novak auction :)
I love smells in historicals, so evocative, lavender, cinnammon, hay...

Jane Lockwood said...

Great excerpt, Pam.

I think some of the names of scents are wonderful--vervain and civet, for instance, although I have no idea what they smell like. In fact, civet sounds like it could be essence of feline, for instance, which might be good only if you're another cat... And I loved the idea of sandalwood and jasmine before I ever smelled them.

I had the pleasure recently of visiting a tea store and sampling all sorts of green and white teas, flavored with exotic things like pomegranate. While they weren't my idea of a nice cup of tea I really enjoyed sampling the flavors and picking up on the different subtle ingredients.

Pam Rosenthal said...

thanks for the kind words, ladies, and sorry I'm later responding. We're in New York, on a gorgeous early summer day.

Sharon Page said...

Lavender--it was my mother's favorite scent and I would save up to buy her Yardley's English Lavender cologne for Christmas. Vanilla is a scent I love.

Your experience with tea sounds like a lot of fun, Janet. I used to love the scent of my grandmother's tea, and didn't realize it smelled so intriguing because she would add some brandy to it.

Pam Rosenthal said...

for years Lavender was my signature romantic scent, Sharon -- the first time I used smell in my writing wasin The Bookseller's Daughter, which is saturated with Provencal lavender.

And I'm obsessive about lavender-infused Dagoba chocolate.