‘Viper Wine’ by Hermione Eyre (2014)


My congratulations to the publicity department at Jonathan Cape. Giving credit where it’s due, as soon as I saw the cover of ‘Viper Wine’ I knew that I was going to read it sooner or later. As you can see, it shows a Van Dyke portrait of a Stuart Beauty, what you can’t see is that it’s a weighty 448 pages long, promising all kinds of literary and historical treats. The blurb also let me know that it would be about the beauty treatments fashionable amongst the ladies of Charles I’s court. What more could I ask?

The answer of course would be that I should be looking for something a bit different, unexpected, maybe experimental. I should hope to go beyond the surface of genre expectations and be aware that in the world of radical beauty solutions, nothing is what it seems…

For those less superficial than me, the answer was also on the cover. The heroine of the picture may be holding a dove in one hand and a serpent in the one, but tucked under her wrist is an iPhone. Fashions change, but they also stay the same.

The heroine of the novel, the historical Venetia Stanley, is in search of eternal beauty and youth. Self-conscious about the ravages of time at her advanced age of 35, she is dissatisfied with established beauty remedies. You have to sympathise with women of the era; a popular make-up product was lead-based foundation (the lead eats away at the skin, meaning more and more foundation has to be used) and even visits to witches didn’t always give perfect results. Enter Lancelot Chance, the mysterious and smooth-skinned beauty expert who appears to be able to provide a form of Botox, based on snake venum, to his desperate clients.

‘Viper Wine’ is an experimental and ambitious historical novel. Eyre takes joy in juxtaposing time periods and I don’t mean subtle reminders of similarities between different eras, we’re dealing with java script in Stuart libraries and a radio mast in a courtier’s garden. On his return from fighting pirates at sea the Venetia’s husband gives a press conference and King Charles uses his scepter to pause and fast-forward a Masque given in his honour.

If this sounds like a huge amount of fun and a witty take on the ‘Modern’ Stuart Court then you’ll be one of the many, many admirers of ‘Viper Wine’. A test might be to assess your reactions to the cover. If, like me, you didn’t want to see the iPhone because you wanted immersion in a historical period, a more conventional novel would be a safer bet. Ultimately, if you’re curious to see how Eyre pulls it off, there is much to like in one of the more unexpected debut novels of the 2014.

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