STARRED REVIEW
April 2015

A 17th-century siren

By Hermione Eyre
Venetia Stanley was a great beauty of her day, sought after by poets and painters eager to pay homage to her good looks. Her early death in 1633 has remained a mystery over the centuries, some accusing her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, of murder and others ascribing her demise to the toxic beauty treatments she was rumored to have used. Hermione Eyre’s brilliant debut, Viper Wine, explores the perils of achieving beauty at all costs, set against a backdrop of the political and social upheaval of 17th-century London.
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Venetia Stanley was a great beauty of her day, sought after by poets and painters eager to pay homage to her good looks. Her early death in 1633 has remained a mystery over the centuries, some accusing her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, of murder and others ascribing her demise to the toxic beauty treatments she was rumored to have used. Hermione Eyre’s brilliant debut, Viper Wine, explores the perils of achieving beauty at all costs, set against a backdrop of the political and social upheaval of 17th-century London.

After years of marriage and motherhood, Venetia fears her looks are fading and turns to her husband’s alchemical experiments for a cure. When he refuses to help, she seeks out chemist Lancelot Choice, whose viper wine, a cordial distilled from snake blood, is said to invigorate the skin and restore youth. But the remedy takes a terrible toll. Meanwhile, other women in and around the court of Charles I seek similar cures, and the dangerous elixir becomes all the rage.

Eyre notes the obvious parallels between Venetia’s search for perfection and today’s obsession with youth by sprinkling the text with quotes on celebrity from the likes of Naomi Campbell and Andy Warhol, as well as mentioning modern beauty regimens with dangerous downsides, such as Botox and bee venom. Intensifying the novel’s postmodern edge, Digby’s thoughts are occasionally bombarded by 20th-century phenomena: He hears Joy Division at a courtly dance, quotes Neil Armstrong as he scans the heavens and perceives computer code in an alchemical text. Open to these dazzling wonders that flow to him, unbidden, across the centuries, Digby proves himself a true renaissance man, part of his world but anticipating our own.

Viper Wine occasionally bogs down in the detailed descriptions of Digby’s esoteric experiments, but Eyre’s stylish flair and sense of invention is truly impressive. Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Viper Wine is a historic fantasy reminding us of the limitless reaches of the imagination.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Viper Wine

Viper Wine

By Hermione Eyre
Hogarth
ISBN 9780553419351

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