The Ruthless Countess Dorothea Eau de Parfum by Penhaligon’s Review

Collage of The Ruthless Countess Dorothea by Penhaligon's and its notes, including sage, white wine, ginger, and vanilla.

The marketing is amusingly correct on this one: this is a rich middle-aged white lady smell. The amusing part is the way the scent marketing posits her as a grand mysterious dame of old. Cashmere, white wine, and the herbs-and-honey background scent of her house? Please. Dorothea is a contemporary countess. She won’t poison your tea, but she will shoot dagger eyes at you across the PTA meeting and give you a big fake plastic smile as she shows you around one of those big taupe American houses with the wannabe-McMansion aesthetic.

A bent soft branch of common sage with fuzzy leaves.

She is the perfect archetypal character of the powerful and ruthless countess of old made contemporary, which I think is hilarious and brilliant. Hats off to Penhaligon’s for the story this one tells.

Though that might sound cynical, Dorothea is genuinely a very comforting fragrance with a genius note pyramid. The notes are all distinguishable but blended together well, and each is selected towards a stack of scents that both symbolically and aesthetically work together in a way that is nothing short of art.

She is warming in a way that is airy and breathable, but also a bit cloying and dusty, like lying in a patch of sun on an old carpet floor as a child in your parents’ bedroom, relishing the warm spot in a house kept a few degrees below a comfortable temperature. You crush as much of your skin as possible into that carpeted floor to soak up all the warmth you can, even as you can feel the creeping ick of all that dust tickling you all over.

That’s the duality of comfort and unease that Dorothea serves up.

As she opens the door and invites you into her home, you’re hit by a few different scents simultaneously.

A bundle of cinnamon sticks held together by twine and topped with an anise star.

In the first hour or two, you’re enchanted by a sweet treat she’s been baking in her oven: thin, crispy gingersnap cookies, with plenty of cinnamon and the gentlest, mildest hint of ginger. There’s some faint vanillic body to the mix of spices, but the vanilla is always subtle and in the background, never at the center of things.

The spices are mild and sweet, mellowed out by the process of baking. The aroma of cinnamon gingersnaps wafts all around you in the kitchen as you turn around and peer into the dining room, sensing another scent…

A glass of white wine with a lightly golden hue.

The wine! It’s a white wine, a little gentler and softer than you remember white wine being. It’s not fruity or floral, but it is a touch honeyed. Sweet, but not sweet enough to be Moscato — that would be too gauche by far. And of course it’s not Chardonnay. Dorothea is a proud card-carrying member of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) Club. No, this is some wine you’ve never heard of before, a sweet Sauternes. It’s a real one from the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, France, rounded with a full mouthfeel, mild and honeyed and almost spiced.

Some sprigs of sage are subtly hidden in the artful decor of the room, and the dining room table holds a beautiful uncorked bottle of white wine, with two glasses beside it. The wine has already been poured. It is for you.

The sight of just those two glasses on that long white table sends chills down your spine, though you can’t say why. The subtle scent of fine white wine — not of drunkenness or of perfume alcohol, but of wine, uncorked — floats around you, intertwining itself with the slightly smoky scent of springs of sage.

Has a candle been burning? There will be at the ritual tonight.

A pile of neutral-toned chunky-knit cashmere sweaters on a wooden stool.

The texture of the fragrance throughout, and particularly within the first 2-3 hours, is strongly shaped by cashmeran. This smells strongly and convincingly of a cashmere sweater, which really makes up the body of the confident-rich-lady effect the storytelling pulls off here. It feels delicious, wealthy, and substantial, with living, breathing texture to grab onto and breathe in.

This whole big house, too clean, too shiny, too pristinely laid as if it were a trap. It all seems reflected in that fine beige or gray cashmere sweater, and in the hints of aromas that cashmere oh-so-easily picks up. Someone was here before you. Someone will be here after you.

On me, Dorothea is, at her heart, a beeswax scent, a little cloying and dirty and sickly-sweet, with absolutely delicious edges of yerba mate accentuating the grounded facets of the honey and wax and keeping the sweetness from floating off to cupcake land.

These are gorgeous yellow beeswax candles, scented only with their potent natural waxy-sweet smell. They feel soft, the way that the texture of an unlit wax candle feels faintly soft to the touch. There’s just a faint whisp of tender gray smoke curling around the candles, soft and fragrant.

Beeswax fascinates me; I think it is one of the loveliest scents in the world, but it is also a little too much for me in its thorough, cloying, biting sweetness, like a grape or a chocolate that bites at the back of your throat as you swallow, too sweet, not in an airy perfumey way, but in a grounded and surrounding way that can feel a little suffocating.

A white bowl full of yellow beeswax honeycombs and honey.

This works in the favor of the world Dorothea creates: it’s a little too sweet in a way that’s sinister, but oh, it’s so beautiful, in a way that is mature, that takes up the space it deserves, that knows what it wants and guns for it. This is the room scent of fine artisanal candles that burn here every night, and a hint of the tea that Dorothea brews herself the next morning, when the ritual is done, as she scans her planner from Marshall’s for the next PTA meeting or soccer game, filing her nails and smiling to herself.

If there’s any sort of bergamot here, it’s a bitter citrus-y edge to the tea and white wine. It’s aromatic and subdued, just a little bit honey-sweet, blending with the hot, almost smoky yerba mate tea. The effect is something like cinnamon-y baked apples served alongside deep, dark, over-stewed yerba mate, soft and sweet with just a waft of something sour and citrus-y.

Two green bergamot citrus fruits, one of which is cut open.

I don’t gatekeep fragrances based on demographics like gender and age, and I personally tend to hew towards more mature, powerful scents, but the character of Dorothea is constructed so precisely that even I do not know if I can pull her off with my personality. I may be the thrifted-cashmere-sweater-loving “mom friend”, but something about this feels genuinely older than I am now, in a way that I can both poke fun at and simultaneously secretly admire and wish for.

The most challenging notes for me in this regard are the undeniably rich and grown-up cashmere as well as the spices, which start to lean generic-pumpkin-spice at some moments of the drydown. Nevertheless, I will enjoy the comfort of my sample, and decide from there whether I am someone who can wear her properly. She really is lovely, and the storytelling of this one really entertains me. Above all, she is comforting, but there is something sinister in her power that I find absolutely delightful.

A vintage floral and gilded white teacup full of brown tea with a matching saucer and gold spoon.

The projection leans towards being intimate from the very beginning — this is no beast mode fragrance — but it’s still very usable and respectable. A subtle volume suits the fragrance well. It makes you dig for all those mysterious subtleties as it transitions through its various delicious stages.

The performance is acceptable as well, with Dorothea lasting some 8 hours, clinging faintly but distinctly to the body through much of that time. She leaves a barely-there trace of spices on the skin for several hours more.

This being Penhaligon’s, the price is, of course, outrageous. But I can’t say there’s a cheaper dupe out there. I’ve never smelled anything quite like this, except for a cashmere-scented candle I sniffed a few months ago at Hobby Lobby. I was surprised that it wasn’t cloyingly sweet or oddly stuffy the way nebulous-gray-colored candles can be. But it smelled like… Dorothea. Cashmeran and wax.

Botanical illustration of a vanilla flower, leaves, and bean.

This is not to say that the Ruthless Duchess smells candle-y, but it is a fragrance that makes a lot of sense as a candle. All its components make me think of home smells, beeswax candles and cashmere sweaters and tea and wine and cinnamon cookies and sprigs of sage. Its most candle-like component is perhaps the burst of warm spices, which does descent towards a rather dull, cliche pumpkin spice mix in the later stages.

This is, perhaps, the greatest weakness of Dorothea’s great design: all these rich-people-house smells inevitably lean towards the too-perfect, too-cozy encapsulated aesthetic of a scented candle in dull moments.

That being said, the perfume itself manages to avoid making one think of any sort of cloying waxy Yankee candle. The notes are of a high enough quality to continually suggest the real thing. It’s a realistic, melty mixing pot of a number of scents that would each be at home in a candle of their own, but are animated here with a lighter hand. They come together in an artful, balanced portrait of a woman and her home that leaves you comforted and perhaps just a little bit uneasy.

A yellow wax tea light candle with a single lit wick.

That whispy thread of disquietude is one of the most masterful things about the Ruthless Duchess Dorothea. It’s not just the expectation set by the name: these smells convey a caliber of comfort that can only come from money and power.

The contemporary Duchess has the best of everything in her elegant suburban home. She burns tasteful Diptyque candles and laughs about how she can only wear cashmere sweaters, ordinary wool is just too itchy. (She doesn’t even entertain the possibility of acrilic or, lord forbid, polyester). Her kids get good grades and dance and play sports and somehow the house is always impeccably clean.

Dorothea is WASP-y, influential, and more put-together than you. She’s an impossible ideal of a housewife, and she has the entire Homeowner Association wrapped around her little finger.

A very large branched light brown ginger root with several light yellow flowers.

It all makes me a little uneasy. I don’t trust Dorothea, the same way frat bro style blue fragrances (like Giorgio Armani’s Acqua Di Giò Profondo or, to a lesser extent, YSL’s Y Eau de Parfum) put me on edge. People who smell like this might look safe and cozy and warm on the outside, but you get the feeling they’re hiding something. They laugh at you behind your back as they gentrify your neighborhood. They think they’re better than you, smarter and cleaner and far more refined, even as they gush over how authentic or rustic or charming your place is.

But this is a snobby WASP mother you’re a little bit in love with. Dorothea seduces you with her many creature comforts. She’s a little too sweet, a little too proper, her whole house looks and smells a little too much like money, but isn’t it nice having someone take care of you?

A pile of yerba mate tea powder.

She makes you feel at home and at ease, loosens you up, gets you laughing along to her stories about soccer practice.

And then she poisons your Sauternes.

The whispers of Duchess Dorothea are self-assured and powerful. I tell myself she is not for me, that she is not right for me, that she’s too fickle and grand in her tastes, too pricey and high-maintenance.

And yet… I keep waking up hearing her calling my name from a dream again.



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