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Viper Wine cover

Viper Wine cover

You perhaps already know Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, in death if not in life. She died in her sleep, on 1 May 1633, at the age of thirty-three. Her distraught husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, sent immediately for Sir Anthony van Dyck, a family friend, and had him paint Venetia on her deathbed; it is an extraordinary record of a deeply private, intimate moment. Digby loved his wife dearly, if his letters after her death are to be believed, and it is in keeping with his extravagant nature that he would seek to preserve her memory in such a fashion.

Yet, look again: did Venetia Stanley really wear her pearls to bed? And where did that rose come from, its petals artfully scattered across the coverlet? For all this is a genuine painting of a dead woman, the scene has nonetheless been carefully arranged to create a certain effect. The painting presents us with a scene of calmness, dignity, restraint. Nothing will become Venetia quite so much as her dying. In Hermione Eyre's Viper Wine, we are, by contrast, shown van Dyck painting this memento mori, working hastily over a putrefying body, which belches and stinks as it decays; the scene is attended by scandalised clerics, pleading with Digby to allow his wife to be committed to her grave. Eyre's fictionalised Venetia, who carefully controls the image she presents to the world, would be horrified to find herself so brutally exposed in death.

But let us return to that rose, its petals as pink as a woman's blush, yet fallen and scattered. It is, on the one hand, perhaps nothing more than a pretty conceit, to remind us of Venetia's living beauty. On the other, it tells us that we live but a short span on this earth and are doomed, like the flower, to wither and die. This is a novel that is loaded with images of ripeness and rot, of external perfection and internal decay. "Sir Kenelm saw a perfect, smooth russet apple resting on the grass and bent to pick it up. A wasp flew out from its mushy underside." (p. 7) It is no coincidence that his next words are, "My wife is growing jealous of her face." Nor is it a coincidence that the first time the reader encounters Venetia, she recalls an event from the previous day: the arrival of a messenger, bearing a single lily, asking for "her most gracious beauty Venetia, Lady Digby?" (p. 11), and his evident disappointment on discovering that she was Lady Digby. Later, after he is gone, she finds the lily symbolically "drooping."

Venetia Stanley's entire life has been shaped by her extraordinary beauty. It has brought her fame and attention, not to mention a husband, but now in her early thirties, living in the country, the mother of two small children, she feels that her beauty is waning, and with it her sense of her own identity. Ageing, the novel observes, happens:

as gradually as a stone staircase wears, or a fan in sunlight fades. But to Venetia it had happened slowly and then suddenly, like a huge stock of water drains for a long time, hardly depleted, till the last swills vanish quickly. (p. 14)

She reassures herself that, to Kenelm Digby, "I am like a tree he sits beneath; he does not perceive my leaves a-turning," (p. 14) and to an extent this is true. An inveterate traveller, Digby does see the shift in Venetia's beauty each time he returns home. He is perhaps a little resentful that she does change, and yet he understands that this is part of nature.

And if she could not keep her beauty, she should at least maintain her faith in her beauty, since that was the chiefest thing, was it not? After a certain age, did beauty not become an act of will, or character? (p. 48)

And this is the point of tension between Venetia and Digby. She asks him for a tonic (he is as much an alchemist as he is an adventurer), and he refuses.

He did not want her to discover the cures that other women drank. [. . .] And he knew a corruption of spirit seemed to follow. These women were always forced by their pride to lie and say they pinched not, they painted not, and they were touched by Nature's hand alone. And everyone pretended to believe them, and showed them such hypocrisy, curtseying to their new face, but laughing as soon as they turned their back. (pp. 48–49)

The beauty regimen of any wealthy woman of this period was terrifying. Smoothness is the order of the day, and Venetia literally fills the imperfections of her face with a compound including pearl dust, applied with a tiny silver trowel. And that's just for starters. Inevitably, Venetia finds her way to Laurence Choice, an apothecary who is producing a cordial composed of cow's blood, pregnant mare's urine, extract of viper, opium, and a few other choice ingredients. Its effects are remarkable, its users easily identified by their unusually lustrous skin, their plump flesh, and their dilated pupils. In modern terms, we might think of viper wine as akin to hormone replacement therapy and anti-depressants, all rolled into one. Choice himself is fascinated by his creation's effects, having as little understanding of it as any of his clients. They have become his experimental subjects, and Choice is eager to push his experiments further.

We may read this element of the novel as a clever satire of the modern cosmetic improvement industry and of our obsession with the outward appearance of celebrities, and to some extent it is precisely that. At the same time it is, appropriately, only the surface layer of an extremely complex narrative.

Time, then, to consider Venetia's husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, perhaps the most interesting man of the age. The historical Digby, son of Sir Everard Digby, executed as a traitor for his part in the Gunpowder Plot, was at first a traveller and adventurer and later, after Venetia's death, a scientist. In Eyre's novel, he is all of this but also something more. "Sometimes his mind was double-hinged, and could go forwards as well as back. He was often like a string that vibrated with strange frequencies . . . " (p. 4) Kenelm Digby has an acute sense of the interconnectedness of the world, symbolised by the radio transmitter he brings home from one of his journeys. How he acquired it remains unclear but it is of a piece with other anachronistic objects in his possession: the Wagon Wheel he eats alongside his bacon and eggs (the historical Digby is said to have invented bacon and eggs as a breakfast dish); the tourist trinkets stamped "Made in China." Time warps around Digby in very odd ways; frequently he seems to be literally ahead of his time, though this always occurs beyond the pages of the novel.

Likewise, Digby's thoughts are filled with messages from the future; ideas and words, all streaming into his undiscriminating, receptive mind. Everything is of interest; his thirst for knowledge is insatiable. If Venetia is preoccupied with surface, then Kenelm is preoccupied with depth. They are the two halves of a single entity, a diptych of personalities, forever linked but somehow unable to fully connect. They transmit and receive on adjacent frequencies. Only once, appropriately halfway through the novel, in a remarkable, hallucinatory passage, do they become one, as Venetia stares into her scrying glass and Kenelm meditates elsewhere in the house.

As if this weren't complexity enough, the Digbys are also members of the court of Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria, with Sir Kenelm seeking preferment and Venetia desperate to reclaim her place among the Queen's ladies, each acutely aware of the gaze of others upon them. Eyre deftly captures the constant jockeying for position among the men and the women as they struggle to retain royal favour, and the ways in which they flatter and dissemble. In the end, only Venetia's friend Pen, Penelope Knollys, is able to speak plainly and tell Venetia that she has gone too far with her cosmetic experiments; that the Queen shows her favour because she has become grotesque rather than beautiful.

Court life is of course highly theatrical, and this is underlined when the courtiers, including Venetia, take part in a masque written by Ben Jonson and produced by Inigo Jones. Word and spectacle vie for supremacy in a microcosmic representation of the court, and indirectly provide a clue to one of the novel's more puzzling elements, the presence of Mary Tree, an orphan taken in by an aunt by marriage, and made constantly aware of her plainness, because she has a birthmark on her face. Her account of her journey to find Sir Kenelm Digby, who uses the Powder of Sympathy to effect miraculous cures, is at odds with the gorgeousness of the rest of the novel. Mary is seeking a cure for her master, Richard Pickett, wounded in an accident by a shard of glass, but her journey is long and constantly delayed. By the time she arrives in London, Pickett is dead, as is Venetia. Mary's role is very much that of the rude mechanical, often gulled by the people she encounters along the way, at other times rescued as they are seized with contrition. But she is the one person who can draw Digby out of his excessive grief, simply by looking after him.

Her presence within the novel, jarring as it may initially seem, is of a piece with the rest of it if one regards Viper Wine itself as a masque, with Mary's story representing the anti-masque. Or perhaps it is the other way round. The purpose of the court masque is to glorify the court itself and in particular the monarch. Jonson introduced the anti-masque—comic or grotesque characters—to further enhance that purpose. And yet, when read in this light, Viper Wine poses a further question: who is actually the grotesque? Venetia with her beauty that needs must be preserved with artifice? Or Mary, who, it turns out, is entirely unaware that with the years her birthmark has faded, because she has never looked in a mirror but has had faith in what others told her: "He said he saw with great clarity how constrained I was by my understanding of myself as Marked, that all these years I had been oppressed by an idea, no more." (pp. 431–32)

And that, perhaps, is the true key to this novel: it is filled with people who are oppressed by ideas. Some, like Venetia and Mary, are oppressed by one idea; others, like Kenelm, and Laurence Choice, are bewildered by many. And perhaps this is true also of the novel itself. It is astonishingly inventive, at times overwhelmingly so, as Eyre makes endless connections between then and now. She is occasionally slightly too knowing in her use of anachronism, none more so than when she gives herself a very brief walk-on part as a reporter. Similarly, there are moments when Venetia's beauty regime is more an exercise in listing things that women did to their faces and bodies, and the substances they did it with, than it is about narrative necessity. Having said that, I'm not sure I blame Eyre, recalling my own childhood fascination with the things Elizabeth I did to her face.

Or perhaps it is that my own curiosity is directed towards Kenelm Digby, who is too often maddeningly elusive within the novel. The narrative only rarely follows him on his travels; his ascent of Mount Etna is wonderfully described, his journey mirrored through a series of events at home, in a kind of domestic version of the pathetic fallacy. And of course, lurking at the back of this is the threat of civil war; it is still nine years in the future when the novel closes, but the signs are all there. Puritan tendencies are starting to show, many are exasperated with the King's capricious refusal to deal with his government, and Henrietta Maria's Catholicism is becoming unacceptable. The masque of the court is reaching its climax, but Eyre resists the temptation to follow Digby further, perhaps because he alone is not tied to a particular moment, and probably knows already what is to come.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic, freelance copyeditor, and graduate student. She is currently working on a PhD focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and is now an assistant editor of Foundation.

Maureen Kincaid Speller was a critic and freelance copyeditor. She reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and was assistant editor of Foundation. She was senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons when she died in September of 2022. You can read a 30 January 2023 special issue devoted to Maureen.
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