To say that Viper Wine is an unusual novel is to make an understatement. The novel is based on events in the lives of historical characters, but its narrative style is wildly creative, including many anachronisms and quotes from both modern and historical sources, even computer code. It seems occasionally to blur the time between centuries.
In 17th century England, Venetia Digby was once the renowned beauty Venetia Stanley, but she is getting older. She is not exactly vain so much as humiliated by her loss of distinction and the pitying glances she thinks she detects. Her husband Sir Kenelm loves her as much as ever and thinks she looks fine, but she believes he doesn’t actually see her.
Kenelm is a sort of Renaissance man, a scholar, soldier, and adventurer. It is true that he spends a lot of time on his experiments and books. He has some other occupations he must be more careful of. He is an alchemist, and even though the Queen, Henrietta Maria, is Catholic, the Digbys’ Catholic religion must be observed with discretion.
Venetia has begged Kenelm to make her a preparation to restore her youth, but Kenelm doesn’t think she needs one and refuses without explaining to her how harmful such a preparation could be. Venetia finally sneaks off to try an apothecary’s concoction named Viper Wine that is made from snakes, and apparently some kind of opiate. Whether it really improves her looks or she just thinks it does is not clear, but soon, many of the ladies at court are sneaking off to find the same apothecary. Later she starts using something similar to Botox.
As Venetia exuberantly pursues a renewed career at court and Kenelm continues his studies and adventures, Eyre reminds us by little digs and a sort of melding of time periods that people haven’t changed in their extreme remedies for aging. This novel is written with a zippy postmodern irony that adds energy and liveliness to the story of how the famous beauty’s autopsy after her death showed she had “very little brain” (not a spoiler, as her death is mentioned in the book blurb).