Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mischievous marionnettes, misbehaving males.... and Maurice Sand.

Roll up, roll up, roll up! The cry to muster spectators to witness and participate in perennial domestic and social battles, an integral part of one of the older shows on earth - Punch and Judy....
Punch Magazine.
While I had always assumed that you could hardly get more 'English' than the diminutive belligerent puppet Mr Punch and his entourage, the reality is rather different.

Far from being simply a stalwart of seaside resort entertainment, with a heyday in the Victorian period, some of the origins of the Punch and Judy show trace back to the Classical Greek era and Mr Punch finds distant roots in the 4th century B.C in far-flung Naples.

At this time the masked actors performing in Atellan farce (from Atella near Naples) also had to draw in an audience, not unlike Punch later, using rowdy, burlesque scenes and stereotyped characters to attract and keep hold of a public which was greatly sollicited by other open-air performances, and accustomed to the violence and action of the gladiatorial arenas. The performing artists from Atella followed a printed text a 'canvas' but used their skills of improvisation to create an art form that was highly appreciated yet was ultimately to fall into decline on the demise of the Roman Empire. Acting reappeared later in public places, church squares and castles in the Middle Ages when performers would enact the Mystery plays to educate and entertain a largely illiterate audience.
 Often puppets would be used to interpret stories, thus drawing on a tradition dating back to the decadent end of the Empire. Marionnettes - Marions or Mary dolls would present religious themes, but gradually more secular ones were introduced. In this way elements drawn, yet improvised, from the Bible accompanied scenes from daily life and all these were interpreted in differing ways from performance to performance.
In mid-16th century Padua actors started to sign contracts and in so doing left behind their dilettante status to become recognised professionals from the Commedia dell'arte, henceforth paid for their work. The themes of their performances were similar to those treated before this change of status, further animated with acts of juggling, mime and acrobatics and with improvisation still playing a large part. Little by little however, the work performed would reflect the social background and its movements and so it was that the reigning instability, a distrust or disregard for the leading classes were portrayed in ironic anecdotes and mimicry.
Jacques Callot: Balli di Sfessania, 1622.
Maurice Sand
 Valets, servants, young maids would be presented 'getting the upper hand' often through turbulent scenes using disrespectful means with regard to their superiors and providing great mirth in so doing. More and more troups of actors criss-crossed Europe until the mid-18th century, leaving the influence of their themes, characters and interpretations on audiences and fellow artists alike. Pulcinello, anglicised to Punchinello and finally Punch, was one of these personnages - along with Columbine, Pierrot, Arlequin.
Colombine Maurice Sand

Molière, the French playwright was heavily influenced by the work of the Italian actors seen Paris and with whom he shared the Palais Royal from 1662-1673 and was particularly marked by the interpretations of the actor Tiberi Fiorelli. The misunderstandings, chance happenings, disguises and role reversal, prefered by the commedia dell'arte were to be reflected and developed in the works of Molière....
Despite the initial wit and sophistication of dialogue, the performances became increasingly burlesque, even obscene and in spite of the efforts of the Italian Carlo Goldini to refine the form in the mid-18th century the commedia dell'art all but disappeared in the 19th. At the end of the 18th century the English performer Joseph Grimaldi introduced the first modern clown to the world of the circus and this would finally eclipse the Italian art form that had already fallen into disrepute.

It had long been recognised that marionnettes could express the same themes of the commedia dell'arte instead of 'expensive' actors and offer artists greater flexibility, impunity and therefore greater freedom of expression in public places. In addition, the relatively small, easily dismantled puppet theatres - the castelets, offered significant mobility and enabled performers to travel from district to district, city to city with greater ease - "That's the way to do it!" as Punch would say...

Mr Punch was first officially sighted and named in Restoration England in 1662 when Samuel Pepys wrote of  a puppet show he had seen in Covent Garden.

The Puritan reign had finally come to an end and Punch, like an irreverent, gaudy Elizabethan jester, was here to mark the event as Charles II gave patronage to actors' performances. Early Punch was rather like Old Vice from Medieval morality plays, acting out the battle between good and evil, with the Devil as a fixture in the performances. In a rapid sequence of events Punch would be confronted by numerous situations that would reflect the social concerns and spirit of the time. Gradually, however, Punch became increasingly individualistic and defensive of his own interests, taking on the forces of law, order, convention and above all his shrew-like wife, Judy. His outrageous behaviour in response to events assumed a farcical quality as it led to mayhem and buffoonery.
Dressed in his fool's motley and a sugarloaf hat, bearing a hunched back, hooked nose and prominent boot chin Punch looks like the ultimate anti-hero who gloats on his bad behaviour ("Pleased as Punch") and loves to flout and outwit all rules and norms. He gleefully brandishes his stick - the noisy weapon that gave rise to the expression slapstick comedy - and doesn't hesititate to wield it against his harridan wife, or even their baby.
The nature of puppetry itself, along with the comic element of the theme, was such that less emphasis was placed on developing dialogue and speech in general and more was devoted to the gesture, especially perhaps when glove puppets took precedence over the stringed variety. Body movement tended to be largely limited and somewhat uncoordinated, dependant on the skill of the operanti or manipulator to bring it to life, often using exaggerated gestures to animate the story line. This exaggerated element was further enhanced in Punch's case by the use of a device that gave him a cackling voice - the swazzle - operated by the puppeteer. The puppeteer or 'Professor' would give a running commentary on the action taking place - helping the audience understand the nuances and also encouraging them to participate in the ambience and proceedings through their responses. Indeed, the call-and-response approach became increasingly common, leading to the "Oh yes, I can/Oh no you can't" catchphrases so familiar to us today, not just through Punch and Judy shows but also through the pantomime tradition.
The performances did not follow a set 'definitive' text, and consequently improvisation and intereaction with the audience led to livelier, up-tempo shows which featured a group of characters and props. These extras would vary but staples beyond the dysfunctional family itself would include the Devil, the Mistress, the Policeman, Toby the Dog, the String of sausages and the Ghost....
Below is the link to a show in Covent Garden.
Themes covered in the performances would include current social issues, but often focused on the eternal demands of domestic life, and particulary the exigencies of the role of father which weighed heavily on Punch who would prefer to cavort with  Pretty Polly, his mistress, than to look after the baby.... Eternal themes indeed!.... Punch's fortunes and the nature of his misadventures were to change in the wake of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 1800's and the social changes this brought about. Indeed, Bank Holidays were introduced to encourage a healthier work force and the seaside resort suddenly gained in popularity with the arrival of the working masses, aided by the advent of a nascent railway network. Seaside entertainment and amusement was the order of the day, and consequently the Punch and Judy show had its field day - Mr Punch's theme song was to be "Oh I do like to be beside the seaside". Here's an extract of the song 'featuring' Edith Piaf....Hmmm!!!
Nevertheless the prevailing morality meant that certain aspects of the show changed to suit the sensitivities of the audience - which  included more and more children. The Mistress and the Devil, soon deemed inappropriate, figured less in the shows but increasing numbers of real Toby dogs wearing a trademark ruff would sit on the front of the characteristic stripey booths, trained to participate in the action. The enthusiasm for Punch and Judy shows grew; even Dickens mentioned their importance and the storyline of The Old Curiosity Shop is said to reflect their influence. Despite dips in popularity due to changing tastes and waves of political correctness the Punch and Judy show survived and has become one of the traditional 'English' institutions. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Punch the magazine, launched in the mid-19th century and yet with its publication ending in 2002. Based on the satirical French paper Charivari, the Punch magazine was outspoken and outraged figures of authority just like its namesake...
 Punch does in fact have many relatives - Polichinelle in France (dressed in his trademark Neapolitan white shirt and black mask); Petruschka in Russia, Kaspar in Germany, Pulcinello in Italy - of course. Here in France Polichinelle has unwittingly lent his name to several expressions to indicate poorly hidden secrets and surprises "Avoir un polichinelle dans le tiroir" means to be pregnant, whilst "un secret de Polichinelle" refers to a secret that is a secret for nobody! However it is probably the distant cousin of Polichinelle and Mr Punch's - a certain Guignol who has best maintained the tradition of French puppetry.
 Guignol and his predecessor Gnafron, were created at the very beginning of the 19th by Laurent Mourguet who wished to distract clients from the real task in hand - toothpulling. Born into a family of silkworkers in 1769, in Lyon, les canuts,  Mourguet presented his puppet to the public to entertain and inform them of the social issues of the day. Whilst the resultant performances of social drama could be humourous, like the Punch and Judy shows, Guignol was far more socially committed than his English counterpart and did not descend into buffoonery. Often dressed like a silk weaver, with his hair tied back in the typical canut fashion (le salisfis), Guignol became a chronicler of the daily news, speaking in the canut accent and dialect. At a time of  limited communication, the Guignol show represented a good means to transmit information especially via sailors travelling along the Rhône and Saone river. The fact that there were no set texts (les canevas) and that each perfomance was largely based on the impromptu meant that the authorities were unable to censor or suppress the shows which would frequently reflect the social injustice of the bourgeois system. With his caustic humour and satirical engagé vision of society Guignol appeared to be a social rebel - a frondeur - who sought to demonstrate how good could triumph over evil or adversity.
I have to say that despite all of that, I prefer good old pugnacious Punch, mad, bad and surely dangerous to know and wholly selfish with it, but endearing nevertheless.
Maurice Sand

And this brings me to another Frenchman, son of the famous 19th century writer, George Sand, yet apparently little acknowledged for his own contribution to art - above all to the world of the marionnette. Perhaps Maurice Sand remained partly in the shadow of his mother, George. She was indeed a leading figure in the literary world, yet equally well known for her lovers (Alfred de Mussy, Frédéric Chopin amongst others...) and a wide circle of artistic acquaintances, her masculine clothes, her involvement in politics and her defiance of social conventions.
George Sand
Devoted to his mother, Maurice was highly influenced by her interests in the arts and particularly the theatre. He wrote an extensive study of  the Commedia dell'arte titled Masques et Buffons in 1860 and as a gifted artist like his mother (even shortly the pupil of Delacroix), illustrated its pages himself, portraying each character of the Italian theatre. In addition to that he set up his own puppet theatre in the family home at Nohant, in the Berry region, and for many years dedicated himself to perfecting techniques - from the puppets themselves (expertly dressed by George herself) to stage management and story lines.
A Sand Marionnette.
The term dilettante is sometimes used to describe Maurice Sand but this seems unjust and fails to recognise his worth and his contribution to puppetry. I haven't yet visited Nohant, but will be delighted to see the magnificent collection of marionnettes (well over a hundred). In the meantime,  here in the Champagne-Ardenne region we have the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette at Charleville-Mézières (also birthplace to the poet Arthur Rimbaud)..... Every two years the Festival des Marionnettes takes place in the city and I shall certainly be going this year when it opens in September.

In this manner, the world of puppetry is perpetuated, although economical considerations and the foibles of taste sometimes lead to strange arrangements, with the most bizarre stage couplings as can be seen from this Guignol poster I came across!
Here's the link for the school - I noticed that the students will be studying the Punch and Judy show in the autumn!
That's the way to do it!

And finally, two years after writing this post in 2011, I finally made it to Nohant.... Here's the post:
The marionettes of Maurice Sand

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bad Blood and Books...

Bad Blood 2001Published by Fourth Estate.

In preparation for the final and ultimate domestic downsizing I've been going through my possessions, sorting out the articles that  seemed so all-important, life-enhancing and attractive when I had first obtained them, one way or another, and are now in need of an appraisal. First on the list were the books which had overrun shelves, stacked themselves up in corners and cluttered bedsides... 

Books have always seemed so civilised and sacred, by their very nature objects of value, whatever their size, shape and to a certain degree even content. A bookshelf was naturally a sacrosanct space. 

 However, I have gradually learnt to be a little less sentimental, in fact I've become downright sacrilegious. All of these books had been parked up on shelves, looking down on me. Their titles, authors and names of publishing houses had been weighing down on me and my heavy conscience because many of these works were still waiting to be read, despite being transported from home to home over the years. This time 'home' is going to change considerably and so I've got to grips with the task, sifting and shifting in the most radical mannner, having had a preliminary session two years ago. Passing on to new homes hundreds of books that I had never read, and knew realistically that I was unlikely to read, along with others I'd never really want to read again  initially felt rather ruthless, but soon felt most therapeutic. After that first step of literary selection and purging, following years of manic stashing, I've now reached a more interesting stage. Ironically, I've decided to read the books that I am happy to read but feel unlikely to keep. I may be a magpie, but even they must have doubts over the worth of their swag and must tire of wading through heaps of suspect articles. And indeed many of the inviting titles and alluring dustcovers that had taunted and tempted me in the past didn't seem to deliver the literary goods that they had appeared to offer. However, some of the works that looked a little lack-lustre or gloomy (to the point that I couldn't work out why I'd even bought them!) have turned out to be glowing jewels worthy of any magpie's covetious eye and will certain follow me to the next abode, wherever that is. A perfect example of this was Lorna Sage's 'Bad Blood', published by Fourth Estate in 2001, a copy of which I'd picked up in a charity shop some years ago. While the title and cover must have caught my attention at the time, I didn't feel the same enthusiasm this time and held little faith in it as it seemed to belong to the category of  'hardship' stories that even have their own shelf space at WH Smith's and do not really appeal to me right now. However, Bad Blood soon revealed itself to be in its very own category since in spite of dealing with a difficult childhood bogged down in a dynamics of a dysfunctional family in full bloom, or decay, the vitality of the text and the life that radiates out from each page in turn draws the reader in. The bad blood in question is not some  inter-generational melodramatic element, or a gruesome hereditary flaw flowing through veins. Although many of the family traits are borne down the family line in varying degrees of concentration and quirkiness the term 'bad blood' refers to enmity between individuals (or groups), in this case the author's maternal grandparents.
 In Bad Blood the marital relationships (and extra-marital relations) in the book are all unusual, to say the least. With regard to the grandparents, the marriage is almost farcically grotesque, built on age-old mutual bitterness and disappointment; the parents offer another vision of a marital set-up, founded on contrast and contradiction; finally the author's premature marriage as a pregnant teenager offers another facet to married life, bearing lifelong friendship and a daughter. Wholly mismatched in matrimony the grandparents are shackled together by their animosity, their mutual loathing fanned by waves of passive-agressive words and gestures that taint everything else in this toxic sphere, housed in a vicarage of Gothic squalor. With a lavish showman streak the grandfather, a vicar, believes his existence to be one of "thwarted ambition" while his wife feels that the pampered, perfumed life destined for her has been snatched away by this brutish word-wielding commoner. "The old devil, my grandfather had talked her into marriage and the agony of bearing two children and should never be forgiven for it."
 After much infidelity and long-term imbibing on his part, matched by gleeful spite and mulled resentment from the spouse embodying 'trouble and strife', the grandfather finally dies. The widow is finally left alone, yet remains ever- engrossed in this marital game.... "Death could not part them anymore than life already had". .

The parents, meanwhile, have a very different, albeit a most particular marriage which nevertheless fails to impress the young Lorna..."Gail and I were determined never to marry or have children thanks to our parents' example". Here the realist husband and the dreamer child-wife form a complement and fuse in a marital haze of 1950's domesticity that binds them together in a fractured, yet functional whole..."In truth they were more than one flesh, they had formed and sustained each other, they had one story between them and it wasn't at all easy for me or my brother to inhabit it".

The relationship between the teenage author and her peer boyfriend which results in marriage and a child marks the end of the book yet offers new life and perspective as new blood lines are intertwined with aspects of the old, leaving a few loose threads along the way. Although this marriage did not apparently last, the  communion and mutual respect appear to have done so and the wit and warmth that run through the book's account leading to this final union shine through the whole. I was sad to learn that Lorna Sage died at a relatively young age in 2001, having just been awarded the Whitbread Biography of the Year prize for Bad Blood.

The caustic wit and comic observation used to reflect the tragic yet vicious platitude of  failed marriage in Bad Blood remind me of a classic Punch and Judy show wherein the protagonists instigate or undergo a series of grotesque events until the final curtain sweeps down. This in turn reminded me of a track I used to listen to in the 80's, at great volume, swearing that no one could possibly lose sight of the essential, fall into such domestic drudge, and fall so dramatically out of love. I still think that the lyrics of Punch and Judy by Marillion are clever and should serve as a cautionary tale...
          Punch and Judy. 
      Washing machine, pinstripe dream,
      Stripped the glow from the beauty queen,
      Punch and Judy, Judy...
      Found our nest in the Daily Express,
      Met the vicar in his Holy vest,
      Punch and Judy...
      Brought the children up, church C of E,
      Now I vegetate with a colour TV,
      Worst thing that ever happened to me,
      Oh for D.I.V.O.R.C.E, Oh Judy...
      Whatever happened to pillow fights?
      Whatever happened to jeans so tight, Friday nights?
      Whatever happened to Lover's Lane?
      Whatever happened to passion games?
      Sunday walks in the pouring rain?
      Punch and Judy...
      Curling tongs, Mogadons...
     "I got a headache baby, don't take so long",
      Single beds, middle-age dread,
      Losing the war in the waist-land spread,
     "Who left the cap off the toothpaste tube?"
     "Who forgot to flush the loo?",
     "Leave your sweaty socks outside the door",
     "Don't walk across my polished floor!"
      Oh Judy...
      Whatever happened to morning smiles?
      Whatever happened to wicked wiles, permissive styles?
      Whatever happened to twinkling eyes?
      Whatever happened to hard, fast drives?
      Compliments of an unnatural size?
      Punch and Judy...
      Propping up a bar, family car,
      Sweating out a mortgage as a balding clerk,
      Punch and Judy...
      World War Three, suburbanshee,
      Just slip her these pills and I'll be free.
      No more Judy, 
      Judy no more. 
      Goodbye Judy!

Here's the link to a video of the song on Top of The Tops dating back to the good old 80's, complete with very big, bushy hair!
Even if the domestic ivory tower/ house of cards and books may very well come tumbling down through marriage meltdown and the legal battles of divorce we can still learn lessons, learn to re-assess what really counts in life and pass on by the things that blur our vision and bear down on us with unnecessary weight. We can truly understand that the life generated by our own blood lines, our children, the pulse of life around us and the beauty and vitality to be found therein are the most important things. Losing sight of this through ill-adjusted expectations and priorities, then the subsequent blurring of tears and self-absorption may lead to impaired vision but finally gives rise to greater clarity. Maybe I would have liked to have kept hold of my greedy magpie hoard of hardbacks etc but as I make my selection it's been a great pleasure to find and focus on the real treasures.  I am no longer buffered up by a misplaced feeling of well-being from being surrounded and buried alive by reproachful unread paperbooks and neglected heavy-weight tomes... 

On that note, before I go off to do some reading, here is another song by Marillion, Lavender, based on a favourite nursery rhyme of my children. It has a slightly wistful tone that I used to love, however no cryptic messages are intended in this choice; some doors slam shut much to our dismay, but are meant to remain shut so that you may open new doors to new houses.

Surprisingly decorative door knocker from a very unassuming street in town.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Fair Maids and Shrinking Violets...

A recent walk in the woods led along paths shrewn with blanched fallen leaves, dried-up grasses and lined by bracken fronds in the undergrowth.

 Meanwhile the trees and thickets were draped with Old Man's Beard, floating like ethereal patches of smoke or mist seen from a distance...

Branches were clad in vibrant lichen and clumps of moss had jacketed rocks and logs like crazy natural insulation. 

On the outskirts of the woods white pockets of snowdrops had appeared in typically shady places, scattered below the trees and nearby hedges. The relative darkness and seclusion of these discreet sites seem to make the white of the flowers even brighter.
The very presence of the snowdrops seems all the more surprising when we stumble across them with childlike amazement. This year I paid more attention to the flowers after having listened to a radio programme describing the huge world of this seemingly modest little plant and the enthusiasm it fires during the cold winter months - and beyond. The field of the 'Galanthophile', these confirmed amateurs of the snowdrop - the Galanthus - is indeed very widespread and seems to be addictive since the diversity seems to belie the humble elegance of this flower that braves the harshest winter elements.

The biological name for the genus Galanthus comes from the Greek gala, meaning 'milk', referring of course to the white colour (cf. the Milky Way - the Galaxy), and then anthus for 'flower'.

However, snowdrops are also referred to as 'Fair Maids of February' and 'Christmas Bells' (some varieties emerge in December), but  with its 19 Galanthus species and 150 cultivars (cultivated to enhance specific features) there is no shortage of name to reflect different characteristics.... Bright Eyes, Ding Dong, Green Finch, Grumpy, Heffalump, Three Ships Come Sailing, Blewbury Tart, Padoga, Ophelia, Magnet, Reginae Olgae of Greece (in honour of Prince Philip's grandmother) are just some..... Although not widely known for its perfume, the snowdrop does have a honey scent that can be magical and this too, not surprisingly, is greatly appreciated by the galanthophile.
Snowdrops in our garden

Cultivars offer green or even yellow-tipped tepals (inner petals) of differing patterns, a variety of shade and shape for the outer petals - from extrovert upturned types, to gentle parachute forms or shy-and-retiring 'droopers'; from burlesque furling double petals like petticoats which contrast with more austere blooms that look like a nun's wimple! The basic snowdrop is the Galanthus Nivalis, said to have its origins in the Balkans, and introduced to England in the 17th century. Soldiers in the Crimean war also brought plants back with them and the Victorians were so entranced by the perceived innocence and purity of the snowdrop that a conference was devoted to the plant in 1891. However, the snowdrop has a far older and much richer symbolism  than that conferred to it by Victorian Britain. In Homer's Odyssey, Mercury (Hermes) supplied Ulysses with a herb Moly ( the Galanthus) to shield him from the poison used by the witch Circe to lead men to a state of amnesia and finally perdition. It is now recognised that the snowdrop contains the alkaloid Galanthamine which may act as an neuralgesic and could be beneficial to sufferers of Alzheimer's disease..... In Christianity the snowdrop represented the passing of sorrow - the harshest seasons of life, just as it reflects the end of the cold winter months. It is said that an angel turned falling snowflakes into flowers to give to Adam and Even after they were cast from the Garden of Eden. For others, however, the snowdrop could be seen as an unlucky force as many white flowers were considered to represent death and as such could not be brought into the house...

Today the snowdrop is so sought after that a bulb recently fetched a price of £350 - a little reminiscent of the Tulip Fever that gripped 17th century Holland. These fluctuations in popularity and perception also remind me of another winter flower, that is also to be found scattered in the undergrowth and on grassy banks... the violet. Whilst the snowdrop catches our attention with its long-stemmed elegance and its demurely bowed head it is always the violet that really catches my breath. Clustered together the violets seem modest in their colouring - the beautiful purple isn't immediately apparent - but then it is set off by the vibrant green of the young heart-shaped leaves.
Then the flower seems to play an optical illusion on your eyes which suddenly become aware of just how many purple-blue flecks are scattered out in front of you. All the other violet clumps surrounding the first one that your vision detected lead your eyes on and on as if looking over a vast piece of woven cloth bearing rich threads, here and there, that pick up the light and draw you in. The rich colour of the flower changes from dense majestic purple to flashes of a vibrant blue shade, all of which assumes a more modest tone when you examine the flowerhead at close quarters when the humble simplicity of the petal shape and the yellow-flecked centre seem to contrast the depth and variation of colour.
Of the same family as the Pansy and the Viola, there are hundreds of violet species worldwide and even if it is often associated with mild Northern Hemisphere zones it can be found in more extreme, far-flung places such as the Andes and Australia. Needless to say, with a bit of British chauvinism I always think of the violet as being intrinsically linked to all things English, but that of course is an illusion. The violet is the flower symbol for several states in the U.S, such as Rhode Island and Illinois and is so prevalent that it is sometimes regarded as a weed!  Moreover the violet isn't necessarily even purple-blue as the jaunty yellow varieties attest.
Pansies and violets from the garden.
Just as the violet seems to defy boundaries, visual and geographical, it always seem to operate a certain magic on our sense of smell too. Valued for its sweet scent, the violet odorata has been used as the base for innumerable perfumes of varying prestige. The very names themselves conjure up a certain magic.... Après L'Ondée by Guerlain; Violette Précieuse, Caron; Violette Divine, Berdoues are just a few...

Parma violets and those of Toulouse are often cited but England also cultivated the flower, to the extent that at the beginning of the 20th century trains would run from Dawlish in Devon to London to supply Convent Garden Market - memorably seen with Audrey Hepburn's violet seller in My Fair Lady.
Here's a clip of Miss Eliza Doolittle singing 'Wouldn't it be loverly?'
My first encounter with violet scent was a little less glamourous and was more of a cheap-and-cheerful nature - namely the Cornish Violet type that targeted tourists, presumably the same ones who bought effigies of the Cornish Pixie (me!). The perfume in question was presented in a small bottle decorated with a bright purple bow that set off the suspect vibrant green colour of the scent. The smell was perhaps predictably sweet, sickly and cloying - impossibly so - but what really floored me years later was that the real flower really does have a very similar perfume, it wasn't just some synthetic concoction.

On the actual flower this sweet scent seems to be in total brazen defiance of the violet's modest size and the harsh conditions of the flowering season - with very few insects to attract (but irresistible to ants) and this gives the plant a mesmerizing quality. My rather limited experience of  manufactured violet scent has led me to feel simultaneously attracted and slightly repelled in a see-saw motion that leaves me queasy so that I can never quite define my opinion of it. I think I will buy another bottle of the Cornish perfume this summer (although I may give the pixie a miss this time!)...
The defiant, enigmatic aspect of the violet does not end there as it has been remarked that the flower possesses the chemical ionone that can temporarily alter our olfactory capacity - literally the performance of our nose receptors. From its surprisingly heady perfume, the violet suddenly assumes a modest, virtually scent-free presence as it plays with our senses in a capricious, most un-shrinking violet way.
Despite the virginal innocence it was later thought to represent the violet was the symbol of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, and more notably her son Priapus ( yes, that one!); likewise in Hindu mythology the flower had a grip on sexuality itself as it symbolised the phallus of the God Shiva.
Pale lilac violets and celandines.

This same alluring, elusive nature of the violet's grasp was often reflected when the flower was used by Gods to draw in or hold onto the female object of their desire, be they consenting or otherwise. Zeus created the violet to give to his lover Io before turning her into a heiffer, a clever shape-shifting ploy to disguise their relationship and so in theory (only) avoid the suspicious eyes of his wronged consort Hera. Meanwhile Hades, God of the Underworld, lured Persephone to the depths of the earth using violets to entice her.
This duality in the flower's imagery is reflected in the writings of Freud who is said to have seen an association between violets, and sexual violence (viol), both words based on the Greek word for the flower - io. The emblem of the violet for love and power are combined in the figure of Napoleon for whom the flower was used as a secret code for his planned spring-time return from the Isle of Elba, and the image of his love for Josephine. In addition to this, the pure violet was also linked to remarkably bloody events. It  was associated with Attis, a seasonally-dying god who was left to bleed to death, and was also the symbolic flower of St Valentine who was persecuted and executed in the 14th century. It perhaps comes as no surprise then that the notion of death was pursued in Christianity. However the violet gradually changed again to become symbol of mourning as the flower's colour was reputed to have been transformed from its  initial white to purple through the tears of the Virgin Mary. A virginal innocence was conveyed in many Christian paintings as the violet was used to symbolize the Immaculate Conception. This was partly due to the violet's capacity for self-fertilisation - thus purity (due to the cleistogamus process wherein it is the late-season flowers that reproduce through self-pollination).
Pedro with Forget-me-nots and Violets.
Continuing this shift in perception the violet started to assume its shrinking, unassuming aspect, becoming the symbol of Our Lady's modesty and humility - an image that was embraced by the Victorians - for whom it was a sign of purity of love and spirituality. However the dangerous duality was never far...In Madame Bovary, the purple prose of Flaubert conveys the platitudes of Emma Bovary's life and more particularly the futility and irony of her attempts to flee it and enter the violet tones of her imagined, sensorially-heightened world. When Emma's lover, Léon, buys her a bouquet of violets the act becomes one of empty gesturing, and one which reflects the shallowness of sentiment..."He puffed up with pride, as if this hommage that was destined for another (Emma) turned itself back towards him". On her death bed, Emma sees the violet material of the priest's robe and feels "the lost voluptuousness of her first mystic thoughts" and yet her death is devoid of all spirituality and is of base physicality.
For me the violet simply has a magical duality, an image of hope and all things positive yet with a touch of sadness too. I found a single violet, against all odds, on the day my cat died and decided to see it as a message that life still goes on, and beauty with it. And so now, just as Pedro before him, our new kitten readily nibbles the heads off any violets that make their way into the house. Life indeed goes on.
And to end here's the famous song by Billie Holiday, Violets for My Furs, although I do prefer my furs to be wrapped around the living animal they were intended for...