Angel Belsey is a Londoner. She owns too much perfume and too many books.


Do you remember learning about literary criticism in school? You may think you didn't, but you did if you ever had a teacher who asked you "What did the author mean when s/he said . . ." Your teacher may have then followed up with something like "The author meant . . ." I accepted that sort of thing, but with a certain amount of annoyance. I almost never got what the author "meant" without being told, because I didn't have the requisite life experience to get there. It didn't matter that I had my own ideas; as a child with a rather black-and-white approach to life, I decided that my ideas just weren't right.

When I went to college, I learned something different. I volunteered as an editor of our university literary magazine. We used to sit in a circle reading submissions, talking them through, and deciding what went in the magazine and what didn't. If you knew the author, you were allowed to say "I am going to abstain from the process and from voting" and just sit listening.

In that sort of environment, the temptation to submit your own work is, of course, irresistible. So I did. And I was wholly amazed at how, even when the things I "meant" seemed so completely obvious to me (IT IS ALL THERE IN WORDS WHY CAN'T YOU SEE IT?), they were, in every case, entirely missed by the panel of reviewers.

Naturally, I had good submissions and bad submissions. The bad ones were just discarded. But the good ones--they were argued over. "Author means THIS!" "No, clearly, Author means THAT!" "It reminds me of something, but I don't know what it is." "This speaks to an experience I had when . . ." and so on.

It wasn't just my (pretty mediocre) stuff that inspired debate, of course. Just about everything we included had a different meaning to every editor. Later, when I did a proper literary criticism course as part of my MA, we looked at Frankenstein from various points of view, including feminist, Marxist, post-structuralist "death of the author" etc. (and now, 13 years later, the BBC has got its readers to do the same).

Over time I came to understand that it was ok when I didn't get what Shakespeare "meant" when I was 14. The only person who was wrong was any teacher who insisted that there was only one reading (and, to be scrupulously fair, my English teachers were pretty good about not doing that--I was the one looking for an ultimate truth (and still am)).

Reviewing perfume is like literary criticism. Your own chemistry and mood will affect how the fragrance works for you. No genuine response can be said to be really "wrong." Thus, I've held off on reviewing Boxeuses. A friend of mine is also reviewing the Serge Lutens waxes, and Boxeuses was her first sample. It was her favorite for quite a while (and has only just been eclipsed by Fourreau Noir), so it was only fair to wait a bit before weighing in with my opinion.

When I tore off the little plastic cover, I sniffed the Boxeuses wax and was knocked over with a "perfumeyness" that I tend to associate with floral aldehydes (and I really am unfairly tarring an entire group with the same brush--just read this amazing article about aldehydes to see why--but I am not seasoned enough to break it down any further).

Fortunately, that metallic smell I was dreading didn't materialize when the wax went on my skin. Where my friend got violets, incense, and dry dog biscuits at first whiff, I kept repeating to myself "Fruity leather. Fruity leather. Fruity leather. Where is this going to go?" After 5 minutes, I didn't like where it went: it was sharp, acrid, and slightly fecal. I thought I had found my first scrubber. But I am dedicated to this journal, and to you my reader, so I stayed the course.

A quarter of an hour later, I found that the perfumeyness had returned, but it was overlaying a dark, boozy, jaw-tinglingly licorice-y fruitcake. This was the longest phase for me. My friend ended up with a lot of incense and even a hint of violets. And even though it's amazing that you can get so many different interpretations of one scent, what's really amazing to me is that Boxeuses had turned from something I initially found revolting to something beautiful. I was again humbled by the genius that is Christopher Sheldrake. He goes on my hero list. My hero list is short.

Eventually, the fruitcake mellowed down to a powdery, happy fruit (mainly apricots, I think), still with what I would term that floral-aldehyde tang, but in a way that is wearable even for me.

Boxeuses, while nominally unisex like the majority of Serge Lutens fragrances, seems really feminine to me, but in a grown-up, tough way. It's entirely compelling. I can't say I'd want to wear it, but maybe I just mean I wouldn't want to wear it often. It's certainly unlike anything I've ever had on my skin, and it confuses me a little, in the same way as Mandarine-mandarin.

I know these fragrances are not fulfilling their potential in wax form. My next trip to Paris is going to have to be at least a week long, and even then I'll have to try one perfume on each top-of-forearm and one on each bottom-of-forearm every day. But what happens when I love them all? I'm kind of frightened.

Boxeuses, Serge Lutens, 2010 Notes: woods, leather, gourmand accents, plum, licorice

The Smell of Freedom