Perfumes for Reading The Pillow Book

“Things that make your heart beat fast: to wash your hair, apply your make-up and put on clothes that are well scented with incense. Even if you’re somewhere where no one special will see you, you still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside.” The woman who wrote these lines was a 10th-century Japanese lady-in-waiting in the Heian court. We only know her title, Sei Shōnagon, not her real name, but The Pillow Book ensured her fame. In my recent FT magazine article, Three Perfumes for Sei Shonagon, I select three fragrance to accompany the Japanese literary masterpiece.

“For a fragrance that evokes Sei Shōnagon’s description of the royal palace – the carved screens, incense smoke and rustle of silks – I turn to Arquiste’s Nanban. It’s dark and plush, with velvety layers of myrrh, sandalwood and leather, but the infusion of osmanthus, a blossom that smells of apricots and tea, gives a candlelit glow to the composition.”

Have you read The Pillow Book? Do you ever select scents that match the mood of your favorite books?



  • kat: I love the pillow book! I own it in several translations in different languages (it’s so interesting to read different takes on the complexities of Japanese). And strangely enough it is the one book I like to read wearing specific scents – for some reason I think they need to be cool, grey and light: Either Bvlgari’s Thé Bleu for spring and summer or Accord Chic by Yves Rocher (the only incense in my collection) for autumn and winter. I’m sure Sei Shonagon would approve of seasonal scents 😉 But it’s an intriguing idea to extend the concept to other books. Next time I pick up ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I’ll spend some time selecting an appropriate scent though it’s tempting but ‘too literal’ to go for roses and lavender, hmm. August 5, 2019 at 8:11am Reply

    • Nora Sz.: If not wearing my beloved Lavandula by Penhaligon’s (huge regencista here :), I would reach for Portrait of a Lady by Frederic Malle. The contrast of rose and patchouli that dries down to heavenly matrimony evokes the path walked by Elizabeth and Darcy throughout the novel.
      Or how about Cabochard, evoking our headstrong heroine? August 5, 2019 at 6:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: I like the idea of matching Pride and Prejudice with a perfume–and to move away from the usual rose. August 9, 2019 at 5:09am Reply

  • Tara C: I tried Nanban a few weeks ago and found it to have some sort of aromachemicals that overwhelm me and give me a splitting headache. Such a pity, as a small amount at a distance is appealing. August 5, 2019 at 9:33am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s in the woody accord. I’m not sensitive to it, but I know that some people are. August 9, 2019 at 5:10am Reply

  • Filomena: I have Nanban and Copal Azur, however, I have never read The Pillow Book. I need to find a copy of it. August 5, 2019 at 11:21am Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t recommend it enough. Meredith McKinney’s translation is my favorite. August 9, 2019 at 5:10am Reply

  • Heidi Czerwiec: I love The Pillow Book! I teach it in nonfiction workshops, and also love the work of Lee Ann Roripaugh, whose writing is quite influenced by The Pillow Book (see especially On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year). I also love your pairings, especially the Nanban and Copal Azur. I might also add a scent like Salome, because there’s a lot of lovers!

    I’ve been doing micro reviews of recent reads, which I pair with an appropriate perfume, on Twitter at #perfumebookpairing August 5, 2019 at 4:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a fun idea! I will take a look. August 9, 2019 at 5:11am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: What a splendid post or article! Thank you very much. August 5, 2019 at 4:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for reading! August 9, 2019 at 5:11am Reply

      • OnWingsofSaffron: After reading your recommendation (McKinney) which I downloaded on my e-reader, I decided to read a German translation side by side. So chose the translation by Michael Stein —he was awarded the translator prize by The Japan Foundation for his German version. So interesting to read bit by bit in the two languages. And as usual, translations tell you as much about the work you‘re reading as it tells you about the language it is being translated into! August 9, 2019 at 11:21am Reply

  • Nora Sz.: Hi Victoria and perfume lovers,
    I bought the translation recommended by you Victoria, it is splendid. So far I read bits and pieces from it, several observations surprise me by seeming contemporary, not something written almost a millennium ago. The strictness of court life contrasted with the playfulness of the author paints a vivid image about society and individuals living in it.
    The perfume to wear would be Mohur by Neela Vermeire, it evokes to me the splendor of Aisan courts, yet has warmth in it too. August 5, 2019 at 5:58pm Reply

    • Victoria: She has such a sharp tongue, doesn’t she? August 9, 2019 at 5:11am Reply

  • ninon: Wonderful! I read The Pillow Book after seeing the film of the same name in the 90s and both have remained with me (I return to Sei Shonagon’s lists again and again). This cements my interest in Naban. August 5, 2019 at 11:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: I remember that film! I should watch it again. August 9, 2019 at 5:11am Reply

  • Nick: Such a witty lady-in-waiting. It is amazing how her account still survives after a millennium. August 8, 2019 at 12:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: And not only that! She and other female writers shaped the written Japanese language. August 9, 2019 at 5:12am Reply

  • Fazal: Nanban immediately reminded me of Papillon Anubis. Have you smelled Anubis? I prefer Anubis though Nanban does seem more developed than Anubis. August 8, 2019 at 12:54pm Reply

    • Victoria: I see what you mean. I like the drydown of Nanban a lot, but Anubis is definitely original. August 9, 2019 at 5:07am Reply

  • Lydia: Dear Victoria, I love these perfume & literature posts of yours so much! I will definitely be hunting for samples of these scents to try.

    I lucked out a few years ago and found affordable copies of the 2 volume complete Pillow Book at a library sale. I was wondering if you’ve tried the Ivan Morris translation and, if so, how you think it compares to your favorite Meredith McKinney translation. August 20, 2019 at 2:37pm Reply

  • Muriel: Hello Victoria, I love it sooo much when you discuss a book and related perfumes! I haven’t read the Pillow Book… yet…
    One novel I read not so long ago is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and I also thoroughly enjoyed the scent depictions she makes. I don’t know enough perfumes to relate to her river, but I could definitely smell what she described, having played for years in the river at the back of my childhood backyard. Detailed smell depiction is something I really enjoy in books, and it is not so frequent… Thank you for linking perfumes with books!! August 23, 2019 at 12:46pm Reply

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