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October 04, 2011

Perfumed Letters : Fragrant Correspondence between Flaubert and Colet


A muse but also writer in her own right, Louise Colet inspired Gustav Flaubert's masterpiece, Madame Bovary (1856.)  However, she also left her mark through their beautiful exchange of letters. While the stormy eight-year liason between Colet and Flaubert ended on a sour note, the letters they exchanged are among the most evocative and poignant of all romantic correspondence I have read. Flaubert noted about his writing that he always looked for just the right word. The letters he wrote to Colet are playful and serious, tender and teasing... Scent plays an important part in how Flaubert saw his beloved, and references to her perfume fill the pages. Below are a few excerpts, which focus on fragrance and perfumed references.

August 6: "I look at your slippers, your handkerchief, your hair, your portrait. I reread your letters and breathe their musky perfume.
August 9: I'll take another look at your slippers again... I think I love them as much as I do you... I breathe their perfume, they smell of verbena--and of you in a way that makes my heart swell.

August 11: In daydream I live in the folds of your dress, in the fine curls of your hair. I have some of those here: how good they smell! If you knew how I think of your sweet voice--of your shoulders and their fragrance that I love.
August 13: Your mitten is here. It smells sweet, making me feel that I am still breathing the perfume of your shoulder and the sweet warmth of your bare arms.
August 15: Tell me if you use verbena; do you not put it on your handkerchiefs? Put some on your slip. But no--do not use perfume, the best perfume is yourself, your own fragrance.
August 27-28: Thank you for the little orange blossoms. Your whole letter smells pleasantly of it.
August 31: Thank you again for the little orange blossoms. Your letters are perfumed with them.
September 20: A thousand kisses... on those long curl papers; I sometimes breath a little of their odor in the small slipper with the blue slashes, because it is there that I have packed away the lock of hair; the mitten is in the other one, next to the medal and beside the letters.

Source: from Gustav Flaubert's Selected Letters, quoted in The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination by Alain Corbin, 1986, Harvard University Press. Selected Letters, Letters of Flaubert to Louise Colet, translated by F. Steegmuller (London, 1980.) Available from

Photography by VeraKL



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