Thursday, December 01, 2005

The romance of pen and ink

One of my all-time favorite novels is the evocative The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909). The story's narrator, who's spending a summer in coastal Maine, has rented an empty schoolhouse to use as an office so that she might complete a contracted writing project. In the story, which takes place in the late 19th century, we see the lady writing with a pen and a newly purchased bottle of ink:

An hour later I was busy at my work. Now and then a bee blundered in and took me for an enemy; but there was a useful stick upon the teacher's desk, and I rapped to call the bees to order as if they were unruly scholars, or waved them away from their riots over the ink, which I had bought at the Landing store, and discovered too late to be scented with bergamot, as if to refresh the labors of anxious scribes. One anxious scribe felt very dull that day; a sheep-bell tinkled near by, and called her wandering wits after it.

My gardening friends know that bergamot (I tried growing it a few years ago but found it an unacceptably invasive perennial) is otherwise known as "bee balm," which explains why the bees went into raptures over the lady's scented ink.

Until I first read The Country of the Pointed Firs (years and years ago), I'd never heard of scented inks. I had already begun dabbling in calligraphy and was crazy in love with gold-nibbed pens and good, crisp paper. But suddenly I was as wild for scented inks as a bee for bergamot. Colored inks, I had already discovered, but now my pleasure-writing took on a new dimension. That the French and Italian inks I adored were shockingly expensive only added to their appeal; this was luxury. I've bought purple inks that exude the heady fragrance of old-fashioned violets. Brilliant blues redolent with jasmine. And my favorite, a delightful fuchsia-colored ink (they call it red, but it isn't, quite) from J. Herbin that smells just like the roses in my back garden. (Those roses are out of season now, but to remember them I have only to reach for the little bottle on my desk and twist off the cap and take a whiff.)

That's the J. Herbin ink ("Les Subtiles") pictured above. One day after toying with a pretty scrap of grosgrain ribbon that was too short to save, I tied it around the bottle.

If you love the glide of a good fountain pen over smooth paper, try a scented ink to heighten that pleasurable experience. You'll find that as your ink dries, its scent will disappear, so the only reason for using scented ink is, as Sarah Orne Jewett tells us, to "refresh the labors" of the writer. But it seems to me completely right that the charm of scented ink is as fleeting as a rainbow or a soap bubble; the only way to hold on to its magic is to keep writing.


Carolyn B. said...

I absolutely adore the luxurious feel of a good nibbed pen and heavy paper... and scented ink? That is too cool! Thanks for the quote, the idea, and the J. Herbin link!

Brenda Coulter said...

My pleasure, Loopy. Thanks for reading my blog.

Danica said...

Brenda, I've never dabbled in pen and ink, but after reading your post, I'm feeling like I've been deprived of a very luxurious pleasure.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I haven't seen my calligraphy pen set in years. I'm goint to have to dig it out of the attic. I used to be big in letter seals too. You know the dripping wax and little monopoly-piece stamps.

Oh, yea...the bee balm....tehehe...
I did that one year, you'll notice the operative word was one. Forget the invasiveness, I have fifteen acres. It was the fifteen acres of bees that sent me fleeing for the benadryl!

Speedmaster said...

Nice. I think MB makes some scented inks now too. I've been using Noodler's inks. I'll have my wife check out your books too.


Nienke Hinton said...

My best girlfriend bought me a glass-nibbed pen, now you've given me a wonderful idea for the ink! Up till now, the best I did was scented highlighter markers. However, they did not refresh my labors.
Thx for the post.

Brenda Coulter said...

No, Nienke, scented highlighters are not romantic. They usually smell like bubblegum. ;-)

Chris, thanks for stopping by. I have a bottle of Noodler's around here somewhere.

Danica, I can't explain the allure of a good pen and a new bottle of ink. I guess it's like falling in love--it's not something that can be explained, only felt.