Like its alchemical subject matter, this book is full of ambition. For her debut as a novelist trying to turn base metals into gold, Hermione Eyre has taken on a complex and exotic subject matter and, if she does not quite succeed at the highest levels, like the scientists of the early 17th century she comes across a load of other great stuff along the way.
Actually it’s more about ladies of the court experimenting with cosmetic concoctions designed by apothecaries to ensure an eternal bloom that is rather more mundane than seeking the elixir of life. But the two disciplines interweave nicely. The story is told through the eyes of Sir Kenelm Digby and his once ravishing wife Venetia, whose particular poison is the wine of the title, made from ground-up snakes, the urine of pregnant mares, and opium. Funnily enough it’s the latter ingredient that has the ladies coming back for more.
There is much to admire here, “based on a true story”, and it makes a welcome addition to the historical novels that have been so popular in the last few years. Eyre’s prose is sensuous and rich like the heady brews she describes. She makes the subject a source of fascination where it might have been tedious and arcane. Her recreation of the period is persuasive and alluring, too. It conveys the magical mystery of the middle centuries in a way that is markedly different from, say, Mantel’s arch bureaucrat Thomas Cromwell or Tremain’s comically preposterous Merivel.
But there is a feature of Viper Wine which makes it very different from your average historical novel. The illustration on the cover rather gives the game away – a sensuous lady’s portrait, with some kind of mobile phone in her hand. I can hear the warning bells sounding already. Eyre has decided to pitch in references to the 21st century amid the coruscating wonder of the age, ostensibly through the flights of fancy to which Sir Kenelm’s mind is prone.
They are not particularly intrusive – save for one “press conference” after Sir Kenelm’s return from a voyage of exploration, in which he is interrogated by the likes of “Paxman”, “Dimbleby” and even bloody Jonathan Ross. But if it’s just a brief mention of David Bowie lyrics coming across the airwaves or a reference to a performer called Streisand belting it out at the Queen’s masque, it’s an annoying conceit which interrupts the flow while you wonder why on earth it’s necessary.
One can only assume that the satellites and radio masts and other bits of gadgetry are supposed to reflect the wonders of the modern age. Certainly there is a parallel between the obsessive vanity of the courtiers and our society’s preoccupation with cosmetic surgery – there is a prototype botox in use at one stage. But whether this adds anything to the overall impact of the work remains unclear. If it does, then perhaps it is hidden beneath too many layers of paint and powder to be discernible.