Brand new and amazingly weird and wonderful, Viper Wine was an unexpected present that gave me a lot of entertainment. I’ve only recently started reading historical novels, which means I haven’t had the time to delve further into the subject, so any advance praise for Hermione Eyre and her first novel had passed me by. Read without any further information in the back of my mind, the novel left me puzzled at first.
Venetia Stanley, a famed beauty in her day, has retired to her husband’s country house to have children and live in comfort. Now that she’s ready to go back to the court of Charles I, she realizes her beauty has faded. Sir Kenelm Digby, her husband, loves her dearly but is too engrossed in his alchemistic work to notice her unhappiness. In a courtly society where beauty and youth mean everything and Venetia has a reputation to lose, she is desperate for a “cure” to remedy her ageing process. From a friend, she learns of an apothecary who supplies a drug made out of the blood of vipers to rich ladies. Secretly, Venetia starts drinking “the Wine” and is miraculously transformed.
So far, so good. But what makes Viper Wine such a fascinating book is its mix of fantasy elements, Jacobean and modern language, postmodern quotations, 17th-century paintings, and alchemistic thoughts. It all comes together from the very first pages, and for a large part of the book, I wasn’t convinced Sir Kenelm Digby and his wife were actual, real people. They were, which Eyre proves with an impressive bibliography at the end of the book. She quotes from Sir Digby’s letters, and there are several reproductions of Van Dyke’s portraits in the book. This alone would make Viper Wine an impressive endeavour, but it’s not all. Digby’s second love, alchemy, is almost another character in the novel. Highly experimental and largely disputed, it was full of failed attempts to explain the workings of nature, although modern science owes a lot to those early experiments. Sir Kenelm doesn’t actually achieve anything, but there are several modern quotations in the novel that show him as an important historical figure nonetheless. The questioning of religious laws, accompanied by a thirst for knowledge, made the alchemists an important part of history. But rather than prove his worth in retrospect, Eyre sends the modern age to Sir Kenelm: His thoughts and dreams are constantly interrupted by static flicker.
Kenelm was haunted by the future, which announced itself in echoes and pratfalls, in twitches as his body fell asleep, or hypnagogic visions as he fasted or daydreamed, when ideas from the far future sounded to him as if they came from the near past. (p. 191)
Time plays a major role in the novel. It is often refered to, as in the very practical problems the recent change of calendar has caused (“Clocks kept different time across the country, suffering drifts of fifteen minutes either side of the hour, if they struck at all.”p. 93), the trouble of ageing, or the Civil War lurking just around the corner. For Kenelm, confused by his static visitations, time is fluid. (“He felt as if his time was set to a new o’clock.” p. 102). Because his love for Venetia is the only constant in his life, he doesn’t notice her struggle with the passage of time. It’s a tragic love story, although it’s always on the brink of the ridiculous, due to Digby’s bizarre ideas. For Venetia, time and age are the enemies. Even her husband’s love does not compensate for the cruel competition at court. Women suffer, privileged or not. Venetia knows this, but she can’t fight it. She succumbs to the cocktail of poison, hormones, and opium that will kill her in the end, because there is no other solution.
The essence of Viper Wine is hard to grasp. It is so many things, it’s hard to even categorize. The story is historical fiction, solidly researched and supplied with masses of documentation. There are many fantasy elements (Sir Kenelm’s static) as well as postmodern newspaper quotations that make Venetia’s struggle with ageing hauntingly familiar. It’s also comedy. The cover has a flipping iPhone on it! Just read it and see for yourself; it will be worth your time.