I often state that me taking more than a week to read anything, irrelevant of size, is a sign that I haven’t enjoyed it. Recently, though, it’s been taking me about a week to proof-read my own blogs, so busy have I been.* So, although it took me almost a fortnight to read Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre, I did enjoy it rather a lot, but felt I would’ve enjoyed it more had I read it in fewer sittings.
Viper Wine is a postmodern historical novel, the paperback edition published this year. It is about Venetia and Kenelm Digby, two real life personages from London Society in the first half of the seventeenth century. Kenelm was an explorer and adventurer and amateur alchemist, his wife Venetia a famed beauty in her youth who, and this is the age she is when the action of the novel takes place, reaches thirty and has a crisis of character as the evidence of age begins to spread across her face and body.
The concerns of Viper Wine are contemporary – the price, cost and value of beauty, the point of seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake, the loneliness after a partner’s death, the tragedy of physical dependence to an addictive substance. Actually, I’m lying when I describe these themes as contemporary. They are contemporary only by dint of being universal. And although the novel is full of deliberate anachronisms**, the emotions experienced by the characters are era-appropriate because they reflect concerns of essential humanity: vanity, power and sex.
Venetia Digby (nee Stanley) takes a concoction called “Viper Wine” as a beauty restorative. It is made using the fermented bodies of dead snakes mixed with opium and a few spices. It is highly intoxicating, due to the alcohol and the opium, and naturally very addictive. She, and many of her peers – court ladies ten years elder than the young ladies of court – become daily users. It stains their teeth and affects their minds and faces. They are more relaxed in their bodies and less stressed about their physicality – they walk with self-confidence and look better for using less facial unctions that emphasise – rather than diminish – the signs of aging. However, with chemical dependency (and with the increased competition of more women looking and feeling good) comes the need to do something more. All the viper wine truly affects is the attitude, and once the effect is dimmed there are only surgical procedures left.
Venetia becomes desperate and terrified, and the novel charts her decline from youth and viguor to an early death***. Many of the details in the novel are historically accurate (or as best as they can be), and the death of Venetia Digby was a mysterious tragedy at the time. She was painted by Van Dyck, she was the subject of poems by Ben Jonson – she was part of culture, in her time – a celebrity. Her fame was rooted in her beauty, and her self-worth was rooted in her fame. If Eyre had wanted to merely explore ideas of beauty and fame, she could have written a novel about a model in the present day. Instead she has produced this marvelous, deeply-researched piece that addresses ideas central to our understanding of contemporary humanity, but does so in an original way that does not tie her ideas to the momentary zeitgeist. It is a novel about Beauty that is not skin deep.****
To discuss it structurally, Viper Wine uses numerous view-points, several narratorial styles and includes many quotations from primary and secondary sources about the fictionalised historical figures and the issues they deal with – in many senses is a traditional postmodern novel. For me, that’s a good thing. I like postmodernism. I like Eyre’s playing with notions of time – I like the 80s pop songs played at the Royal masque, the modernist paintings brought back from a trip to Europe, the Spam Kenelm eats for breakfast…
17th-century England is evocatively created – the scummy rivers running through London, the rural inns, the country estates, Vesuvius in the midst of an eruption, a cellar full of barrels of vipers waiting to be slaughtered… Viper Wine contains many memorable scenes, and lots of great juxtapositions between the old and the new.
It repeats the universal truth all good art (of whatever form) emphasises: People and their natures and appetites do not change, all that alters is the technology we use to gratify them.
Viper Wine is a fine novel. I haven’t got much to say against it.
* “So busy have I been”. “So busy have I been.” Read and reread it and the actuality of my distance from my literary self and the literary now becomes more and more evident. Need to dive back into my own prose again. “So busy have I been.” Am I a backwards fucking poet now???
** Sir Kenelm Digby – and many people he encounters on his travels – are gently unstuck in time. Not with a Vonnegut-style leaping about of the consciousness, but with a loose approximation of memories that come from the future (my favourite is the scene where Kenelm sings David Bowie to his children as a lullaby) and occasional encounters with odd objects that have appeared in 17th-century England from somewhere far away. That far away being, rather than the Mediterranean, the Far East or the fashionable Americas, England itself a few hundred years on…
*** Tragic flaw: mis-pitched pride and the resultant substance abuse.
**** I’m resorting to cliches. What is going on???