Book Club: Viper Wine
Hermione Eyre's Viper Wine transports us to Whitehall Palace in 1632 and the court of Charles I. Here the ladies of the court imbibe a potent new beauty tonic, Viper Wine, distilled and discreetly dispensed by the physician Lancelot Choice. Based on true events, Eyre magically takes us inside the court, with the added addition of David Bowie and a submarine that sails beneath the Thames. Why? Find out below.
Good book covers, I believe, start conversations. So I’m glad you asked. Hello. And yes, the iPhone photoshopped into Van Dyck’s portrait of Venetia, Lady Digby as Prudence is there because although this book is set in 1632 it contains hints and glimpses of the future, time present contained in time past. It is based on the true story of the life and early death of Venetia Digby, one of the most adored women at the court of Charles I, who had a secret addiction to the beauty potion Viper Wine.
You can see from the portraiture of the time, the elegant silks and playful classical allusions, that the 1630s was an indolent, becalmed decade. Charles I refused to call parliament court and instead of doing anything to avert Civil War, the court was preoccupied with masques and fancy dress. And in this heady scene the fairest of them all was the young Venetia, who was “altogether bona roba” as John Aubrey put it, audibly rubbing his thighs.
She was wild in her youth, a heartbreaker. When I saw her miniature in the Victoria and Albert Museum, a mass of sexy curls, an insolent stare – I knew she was my story’s heroine. Crowds attended her when she travelled. A man died for her in a duel. Her reputation became rackety. Then she married Sir Kenelm Digby, which redeemed her in the eyes of the court, and she became quite the pious wife, closeted away with her chaplain and her children, publishing pamphlets of household advice rather as today the reformed celebrity publishes organic cookbooks.
But the role did not entirely suit her. As Kenelm’s world grew larger – he spent a year privateering in the Mediterranean, earning silver and renown – hers diminished. She gambled. And she drank Viper Wine. She thought a beauty potion would help her regain her old power, and keep her husband’s love. He implored her to age naturally, but like so many women she thought she knew what he wanted better than he did. And Viper Wine, supplied by a discreet apothecary, was so convenient. It made her younger every day.
Viper Wine contained, like many first-class medicines of its time, a crumb of opium. Venetia’s mind began to be heightened, tinged with hallucinogens as she gazed at the infinite weave of her bed-hangings. Meanwhile her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, worked downstairs in his laboratory, where his mithradates bubbled as he tried to hasten the Age of Gold, when none of us shall ever grow old or ill.
As I wrote Viper Wine I kept a scrapbook of images, new and old. Van Dyck portraits which were so flattering they couldn’t anatomically correct. Photographs of middle aged actresses looking unrecognizable – like a younger sister of their former selves. Adverts for slimming pills. Articles about bee venom facials. I drew Helena Rubinstein’s words in a bubble from Venetia’s head: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”
These things don’t belong in a historical novel, you might say. Well, why not? Why couldn’t my alchemist quote David Bowie? Every time I tried to fight them, the anachronisms came back stronger. They seemed to suit these extraordinary characters. I was careful to anchor the story with accurate historical quotes, so the reader can sort what is established fact from what is obviously imagined. Like many alchemists Sir Kenelm was interested in Eastern philosophy. He meditated. For him, time was circular, elastic. For Venetia, it was all too fixed. She was oppressed by the ticking clock, by her mortality.
Sir Kenelm was tall, handsome and blond, “gigantique and great voic’d”, known by his contemporaries as “the ornament of England”. His letters are remarkably fresh and modern. I found it hard to believe he genuinely thought he could turn base metals into gold. Then I found his notebooks in the Wellcome Trust Library: page after page of sincere, careful alchemical experiments, drawn in rusty ink. Perhaps his dedication to the Great Work closed his mind to what was happening to his wife, not noticing how young she had started to look, how unlike herself.
On May morning, 1633, Venetia was discovered dead in bed, lying as if asleep within the dark blue drapes of her four-poster. She was only 32. She left behind her a household mourning her with “shrill and baleful cry”, two little boys and a grief-stricken husband who nevertheless managed, with characteristic flair, to send for Van Dyck to paint her on her deathbed.
Which is how, for the second time, I came to be face-to-face with my heroine, this time in Dulwich Picture Gallery. Van Dyck pays close attention to the sit of her nightcap, the lustre of her pearls (surely added after her death, like the blown rose on the counterpane, for painterly effect). She is a living presence, though hours dead. She is a paradox, a tragedy contained within a peaceful exterior. But more than all this, she is a star, a diva, still attracting all eyes upon her, even in the moment of her death. For a writer she was a gift and a challenge, and in my dreams I still sometimes see the world through her eyes.