Once I had got to the end of my book – a biography of the writer Jean Rhys – and I had killed off the main protagonist, I felt intense relief. It had taken me five years to get to this point. Rhys was 78 when she died, and at certain points during the five years it took to write her life, I thought she would never die. Towards the end of her life, my impression was that she felt the same. But, she kept saying, she had to earn her death. I think it is safe to say that she did, and that, like her, I experienced a sense of joy in that moment. A few days later it occurred to me that not once in the 80,000-odd words I had written had I mentioned why I had called the book, “the blue hour.”
L’Heure Bleue is the name of her favourite perfume, and it was what first attracted me to her. In fact, I was wearing it long before I wrote the book. In the summer of 1912 the French parfumier Jacques Guerlain concocted a scent from musk and rose de Bulgarie with a single note of jasmine. He intended his new scent, which he called L’Heure Bleue, to evoke dusk in the city, a time when the well-groomed Parisienne prepares for the evening.
For Jean Rhys, the blue hour was also the hour when the underdog she saw herself as being during the day turned into a wolf. Dogs hunt best during twilight. Underneath our mannered surface lurks a predator. Jean Rhys was always concerned with what lay beneath the top notes. In Quartet, her first novel, set in Paris, a young, female character, smarter and bolder than her heroine, is wearing L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain. Rhys’s heroine absorbs the woman’s scent as though by breathing it in she could capture her rival’s self-possession.
Its hints of pastry and almonds make L’Heure Bleue a melancholic fragrance, as if in mourning for a time passed by. The curves of the Art Nouveau bottle, the stopper in the form of a hollowed-out heart, allude to the romance of the years leading to the First World War. The story Jean Rhys tells in Quartet describes the last days and weeks of a relationship, the loss of love and safety, and, implicitly, the death of old Europe. L’Heure Bleue, as I have said, was her favourite perfume, and The Blue Hour is an attempt to re-capture her life. Another thing that occurred to me on finishing this book was that Jean Rhys died on my birthday, 14th May 1979. I was 14, and I almost feel as though I was carrying her torch long before I came to write her story.
Lilian Pizzichini is author of The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys.