Viper Wine teases the reader into believing it is a historical novel, with its citations and its bibliography and its precise dates, yet at every turn the book pointedly undermines its claims to truth with speculation and anachronism. In other words, it’s a total delight.
In her debut novel, Hermione Eyre (the most perfectly British name ever printed on a book jacket) drapes a raucous story of beauty and science and indulgence over the seventeenth century figures of privateer and explorer Sir Kenelm Digby and his wife, the notorious beauty Lady Venetia Digby (née Stanley). As he voraciously pursues knowledge and adventure, she doggedly chases her slipping fame and beauty. Eyre’s riotous bricolage of narrative shows us a past shot through with our present, leading the reader to suspect that the past has penetrated us, too.
Taking place in the last year of Sir Kenelm and Venetia’s marriage, the novel begins with Sir Kenelm’s description of Venetia’s untimely and suspicious death in 1633. It then rewinds, proceeding in a somewhat chronological fashion through the last few years of their life together, with occasional dips into the perspectives of minor characters. The couple’s stories are parallel tracks, rarely intersecting. In this way the novel shows the mores of their time, with women occupying a domestic, private realm and men operating publicly: the narrator follows one character, then switches to the next, emphasizing their simultaneity and their separation. Because the story is derived from real historical figures, Sir Kenelm’s activities, thoughts, and fate are thoroughly recorded not only in the public record, but in his own writing. Venetia only exists in history as the object of men’s attention. Nothing in her own voice survived, so Eyre reconstructs her as a seductive, witty, wealthy woman who married into one of the few powerful Catholic families in Jacobean England. Like Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson, who fill in the gaps of the historical record with discounted stories, rumors, and bold acts of fiction, Eyre uses a fragmented, deliberately ahistoric approach to tell a story with historical trappings but a very modern core.
The story takes off when Sir Kenelm returns from yet another privateering adventure in 1629. Gaily acquisitive Sir Kenelm erects a stolen obelisk, embarks on the creation of an ambitious library, and begins to experiment with alchemy. Like alchemy, Sir Kenelm acts as a pivot point between science and magic, between the medieval and the modern. He reads Galileo’s theories yet stakes his claim to immortality on being the inventor of the “Powder of Sympathy,” a creation that he believes can cure wounds through the power of transference. In the novel, this openness makes him a sort of antenna for Early Modern ideas. He brings Spam home from his adventures at sea and knows that “OR7D4” is the “codename given to the isolated genetic olfactory receptor in Venetia’s blood that made her swoon for his tired body’s smell.” Sir Kenelm never questions these delightful impossibilities because he is certain there is much more to learn. These washes of chemical and technological information are part of him always feeling on the cusp of an incredible future.
Sir Kenelm turns his energy outward, seeking to eat the entire world. Venetia, on the other hand, is all reception. She knows herself only as the object of a gaze. As the novel opens, the young mother of two fears that she’s aged and lost the only thing that defines her: her beauty. She longs to regain her youth and, with it, the adoration of the world. Venetia, whose very name conjures up luxury and license, puts herself into the hands of unorthodox doctors whose salves and tinctures might help her regain her beauty, but whose other consequences are unknown. Her underground apothecary, Master Choice, proclaims to his customers, “We live in a wondrous age, my ladies, a golden time in which it is no longer necessary to present the marks of ageing and decrepitude.” The noblewomen become devotees of his very effective Viper Wine, composed of potent herbs, animal products, and snake’s venom. Though they conduct their experiments alone, Sir Kenelm and Venetia are tied together by alchemy.
Hermione Eyre has a penchant for fantastic anachronism (the British jacket art conveys that in a way that the American doesn’t), and in her novel these two people embody both an essence of their time and an essence of ours. In one section, both Kenelm and Venetia are meditating on perception, him inspired by meeting with gurus in India on his travels, and her looking deeply at a tapestry on her bedroom wall after swallowing a dose of Viper Wine. She takes out an obsidian scrying glass:
Venetia looked into the abyss, and saw you looking back at her.
The atom split. Kenelm’s mind snapped back on itself like a rubber band and flew into the future, into particle physics, string theory, superstring theory supersymmetry, Higgs boson theory – all flashing fast and faster, turning like a zoetrope, changing and improving with every spin of the wheel.
Isaac Newton’s mother, still only a child, danced around the maypole in the Lincolnshire countryside.
Venetia lying on her stomach, gazing into the dark lake, looked straight at you and asked: ‘Well, what did you expect? What could I do—except become Narcissus?’
The fourth wall terrifically removed in this passage. We toss back a shot of the fantastic when the scrying glass truly works, we buzz with Kenelm’s scientific visions, and Venetia is given the opportunity to speak for herself, to remind us that we’re all shaped and curtailed by societal expectations. Our society demands physical beauty from women, then lambasts the women who comply for their vanity. Eyre’s version of this familiar story is beautifully told. We hope that Venetia will achieve self-awareness, yet we know that within her constraints, it will remain impossible.
With arch self-awareness, Viper Wine refuses to let us sink into a realistic version of a past that we can marvel at as exotic and strange. Eyre uses framing devices like naming the auditors of Sir Kenelm’s reportage a “press conference” to shake loose our belief that we’ve changed so much that the past could ever be a “foreign country.” She also makes pointed use of epigraphs from throughout history, such as Helena Rubenstein’s declaration, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones” (1966), and Thomas Tuke’s, “Women goe up and downe with white paintings laid one upon another soe thick that a man might easily cut off a curd of cheesecake from either of their cheeks” (1616). Eyre takes Venetia’s quest for beauty as seriously as Sir Kenelm’s for scientific knowledge, though the former could be dismissed as vanity and the latter as lacking a rigorous scientific process. We are never granted the distance that would allow us to condemn these strange others. The novel returns our accusing stare.
Eyre uses the excuse that she’s creating a mashup of fiction and history to swirl in multiple genres and styles. We read a Classical Dialogue, Sir Kenelm’s philosophy, and his travel journals; between these archival elements, we read the narrative of Venetia’s life, imagined from plays, poems, and historical hints. The book skips around in time and place, which can make it feel a bit like a “greatest hits” version of Sir Kenelm’s life. But the crazed tempo contributes to the effect of a heightened, fevered existence. All the characters are protected from reality and cannot sense the Puritans’ Glorious Revolution just over the horizon, which will end this era.
This unevenness extends to the language of narration, which veers wildly between contemporary language and Olde Timey forms of speech and even spelling. (Sometimes “recipe” is spelled the modern way, and sometimes as “receipt”; sometimes “exotic” has a K at the end.) In many ways, this is a very shaggy, snaggle-toothed book, but the cobbled effect enhances a story that has more to say to us than we might be willing to concede. For one thing, Eyre’s conscious use of anachronism neatly avoids the question of how closely a historical novel has to hew to the historical record, and throws out the realist convention of immersing the reader in a historical period. In one of the most carnivalesque scenes, after the conclusion of an Inigo Jones masque, Venetia observes a young noble relative take on the belle-of-the-ball role she had thought still belonged to her:
Venetia was revealed, strobe-lit, in the midst of it all, moving, yet not out of breath, smiling like the goddess of the dance. Behind the serene mask, her thoughts were tumbling: the child Lettice wears my dress, my Ultramarine that Edward Sackville called the color of Jerusalem’s sky. I never gave it to her. I brought it for the Queen, not for her. Now she dances with my husband and leads the masque as the Morning Star. She usurps and supersedes me. If this is the natural order of things, henceforth nothing in me is natural. Bring me to drink the gaudy immortal. Let me become super-natural.
The drums beat out a new tune: ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart.’
Venetia was thrown opposite a young blood called Wharton, who was dressed as a shepherd, in a rich silken cape, ringlets and Arcadian sandals. His hair was bright blue. ‘Madam,’ he bowed deeply. ‘I adore your daughter Lettice.’
Kenelm stamped with the music, feeling the terrible, preordained joy of it, the heartbreak, tearing us apart.
I love the jarring risks Eyre takes by adding a current reference in order to capture the moment’s affect. In fact, the weakest moments in the novel come when she simply illustrates historical moments—when she offers brief quotes from her research, then lays out an imagined version of how that historical fact came into being. Either the snippet of text should speak for itself, or the narrative should. Additionally, about halfway through the novel a Candide-like figure appears, and she takes over sections of narration as she seeks the creator of the “Powder of Sympathy.” It’s an odd choice, and one with an unclear rationale. Still, I’m glad a stronger editorial hand didn’t wrangle in this novel, because I’d hate to have seen Eyre’s ambitions curtailed.
Eyre’s storytelling demands and deserves our attention. Viper Wine is a beautiful, unexpected, pleasureful book that shows us we’re not the first generation to be obsessed with the new and the now. We always think we are at the end of history and the pinnacle of knowledge. Eyre asks, is there a difference between the eager optimism of bitcoin investors and that of Sir Kenelm Digby? Is there a difference between crowds of women chanting “F’neesha! F’neesha!” after a young Venetia Stanley’s appearance in a masque, and the hordes of people who turn out for Kim Kardashian? By taking the past seriously, Eyre shows us how many unknown unknowns must still remain, even in this Information Age. Her story speaks not just to us modern readers, but also tells the most elemental story of humanity: the war between our desire to hold onto the past and our yen to find out what’s coming next.