Title: Viper Wine (2014)
Set in 1632 England, Viper Wine follows Venetia Stanley, a noblewoman once considered a beauty by society who is now less that impressed with what the ravages of time do to said infamous beauty. Her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, doesn’t seem all too concerned by her fading youth, and would rather muse philosophically in the company of his many, many books. Despite her clueless husband’s adoration, Venetia takes her beauty into her own hands, seeking out various suspect lotions and potions like so many of her contemporaries; as part of a society centred around the spectacle of court and above all being seen, Venetia represents a key aspect of early modern England which, in Eyre’s hands, becomes the stuff of a witty, exuberant, and fascinating narrative.
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
(‘The World’ by Henry Vaughan)
The blurb claims that this book poses a question relevant to contemporary society – what is the cost of beauty? I would agree the book deals with this enquiry but along the way it also, much to my delight, delves into the “oddities” of seventeenth-century London – religious tensions, for one – and the numerous overlapping, and often contradictory, discourses in which society operates – political, theological, social, academic, medical, cultural etc.
What pleased the little early modern nerd in me, however, is the way in which Eyre weaves all this atmosphere of Stuart London, with references to Charles I and his queen, alongside purposefully jarring modern references and epigraphs. For example, on observing the stars with his young son and musing on the existential nature of being, Sir Kenelm assures him: “There’s a starman waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds”. The titbits of pop culture aren’t hidden or a mere gimmick – Eyre skilfully crafts Digby’s character as a conduit of sorts through which time flows – he is a tuning fork, seemingly, he can “see” the future or future developments, as well as existing in his present. Just as Venetia is representative of the era’s anxiety of being seen, Kenelm epitomises the Renaissance clash between classical and modern, science and religion, poetry and prose, discourses that clashed wonderfully in the 17th century just as the lyrics of David Bowie here clash alongside the plays of Ben Jonson.
Foreshadowed from the outset by the novel’s rather postmodern cover design, if you can get on-board with, and enjoy, this slightly bizarre anachronistic pop-art style clash of time and place, with epigraphs from Robert Herrick’s ‘Whenas in silks my Julia goes’ to extracts taken from the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, then you’ll enjoy the writing style, and so love the story – if you can’t, you’ll probably hate it. I, for one, was firmly on the side of love and this book left me with such a book hangover that I know won’t be placated due to the unique nature of Eyre’s impressive debut. Absolutely recommended for those looking for a quirky historical novel with a bit of a bite.