Katherine Mansfield’s Olfactory Map of London


Eight o’clock in the morning.  Miss Ada Moss lay in a black iron bedstead, staring up at the ceiling.  Her room, a Bloomsbury top-floor back, smelled of soot and face powder and the paper of fried potatoes she brought in for supper the night before.


Katherine MansfieldLike many of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, Pictures presents us with a snap shot of the life of a woman who is mired in loneliness and alienation and repeatedly exploited by the men around her.


Ada Moss’s daily routine consists of dragging herself around the West End from one show-business agent to another in an increasingly futile and dispiriting attempt to find a booking. She had hopes of finding work in the new film industry, but her route into the pictures of the title is constantly blocked by booking agents who prefer women who are thinner, younger and prettier.

Ada, a former opera singer, is a woman out of time and out of place.  The sensations of the city assault her faculties.  The eyes of those she meets burn into her.  Sights and sounds bombard her.  Even her sense of smell is constantly on the alert. . . .

Location Smell Emotion
Ada’s lodgings soot, face powder, fried potatoes weariness, apprehension, disappointment, irritation 
ABC café fresh rolls, Jeyes fluid aggravation 
Street outside petrol fumes agitation, embarrassment 
Kig and Kadgit Izal disinfectant disappointment 
Beit and Bithems sweat, furniture polish humiliation 
North-East Film Company perfume, parma violets desperation, despair
Bitter Orange Company dust, stale air humiliation, distress
Square Gardens traffic fumes, horse shit, mud anguish, sorrow, catharsis
Café de Madrid garlic, coffee, whisky and brandy, cigar smoke, eau de Cologne resignation, resolution

Indeed, making a close reading of Pictures, one can almost say that Mansfield is presenting us with an olfactory map of the city.   In doing so she short-circuits the limitations of language and cuts through our cognitive understanding of the text bringing us directly in touch with Ada’s psychological state. From morning weariness to evening resignation we follow her journey through the day.

About Bobby Seal

Freelance writer, poet and psychogeographer
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2 Responses to Katherine Mansfield’s Olfactory Map of London

  1. Julian Beere says:

    Dear Bobby,
    A couple of very interesting posts and very finely illustrated with those photographs. I wonder if they, or some of them, are yours? I think you might be interested in this essay (if you haven’t all ready come across it) – Vagueness Gridlocked – A Map of the Smells of New York, Eleanor Margolies (in, The Smell Culture Reader, Ed’ Jim Drobnick, pub’ Berg, 2006).
    I had a very vivid olfactory experience doing some work in a tower block on the Golden Lane Estate – where each floor had a very distinctive and intense odour – the sum of them being head spinning by the time I reached the top floor.

    • Bobby Seal says:

      Hi Julian

      The pictures of Flint in the 1960s are by a guy called Roy Phillips. You can see more of them here: http://www.fflint.co.uk/thumbs6.html
      On the subject of smell and a sense of place I recall reading something a couple of years ago about a woman at, I think, Sheffield University who’s done a lot of work on the subject. Can’t remember her name though!

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