Sir Kenelm Digby and Venetia Stanley were one of the most spoken-about couples of the 17th century. Sir Kenelm was a scientist, an alchemist and an adventurer, while his wife was known as the most beautiful woman at court. Copies of her portrait were passed about and her radiance was known for miles around, which has turned her from a witty young woman into a self-obsessed and beauty-hungry lady. Looking for ways to keep her beauty, Venetia starts to visit an apothecary who concocts a cure made from opium, pregnant horse urine, and, most importantly, snake venom. While initially successful, Venetia soon becomes addicted to not just the drink, but the very idea of cosmetic tampering, while Sir Kenelm drifts further and further away from his wife and into his own obsessions.
Like many historical novels dealing with a certain point in history, we meet a great number of famous faces, such as Ben Johnson in his twilight years. Unusually however,Viper Wine also features cameos from the modern day; as while most people concentrate on the here and now, Kenelm exists almost outside of it; acting like a satellite TV, picking up broadcasts from our decade. He hears mysterious cures from the future involving stem cells that he’d like to act upon, he quotes David Bowie to his sons, and he imagines himself being interviewed by Jonathan Ross and Jeremy Paxman. At one point, the author herself interjects to ask him about his life. This slightly anarchic and anachronistic approach is wonderfully jarring, and reinforces the differences between the two lovers. Venetia is obsessed with halting time and rewinding it to when she was beautiful; whereas Kenelm barely seems to care about the age he is living in. Small snippets of modern beauty cures litter the pages – some of which seemed so bizarre I had to double check. (Anna Friel of Pushing Daisies, for example, really has had blood from her arm injected into her wrinkles.) Most of the time these flights of fancy aren’t intrusive, just bubbling to the surface before fading out again, and neither do they stray too far into the unbelievable and risk upsetting the historical world Eyre has created. (No Monty Python-esque policemen rushing in to halt the proceedings or alien spaceships rescuing our heroine.)
Although it plays fast and loose with conjecture, fans of historical fiction will be in heaven here, as Eyre has brought to life the lives, worries and politics of the early 1600’s. It’s also a scathing look at modern beauty regimes, as the juxtaposition of useless (and possibly dangerous) treatments from the 1600’s and today reveals just how little has changed. Is putting poisonous lead on your skin really any different from injecting poisonous Botox into your face? It’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, but those that let it get under their skin will find much to love.