“Using an alchemy all of her own, Eyre’s postmodern take on the 17th century renders it dazzlingly fresh and contemporary.” —Guardian (UK)
Venetia Stanley was the great beauty of her day, so dazzling she inspired Ben Jonson to poetry and Van Dyck to painting. But now she is married, the adoration to which she has become accustomed has curdled to scrutiny, and she fears her powers are waning. Her devoted husband, Sir Kenelm Digby—explorer, diplomat, philosopher, alchemist— refuses to prepare a beauty tonic for her, insisting on her continued perfection.
Venetia, growing desperate, secretly engages an apothecary to sell her “viper wine”—a strange potion said to bolster the blood and invigorate the skin. The results are instant, glorious, and addictive, and soon the ladies of the court of Charles I are looking unnaturally youthful. But there is a terrible price to be paid, as science clashes with magic, puritans rebel against the decadent monarchy, and England slides into civil war.
Based on real events and written with anachronistic verve, Viper Wine is an intoxicating brew of love, longing and vanity, where the 17th and 21st centuries mix and mingle in the most enchanting and mind-bending ways.
Set in 1630s England, a country heading for civil war, Eyre's confident debut novel expertly combines historical fact with modern-day invention. Sir Kenelm Digby is an alchemist, a man at the crossroads of magic and science; in Eyre's imagination, "sometimes his mind was double hinged, and could go forward as well as back." Eyre's narrative includes anachronistic imaginings of the future: microscopes, Fermat's Theorem, binary code, and even Barbara Streisand. Digby's wife, Venetia, desperate to regain her youthful beauty, imbibes Viper Wine, an illicit concoction whose ingredients include snake venom and the urine of pregnant mares. Although Venetia is gratified by the results, the drink renders her face largely immovable, the 17th-century equivalent of Botox. Parallels with the 21st century abound, as women are "misled, traduced, deluded" into cosmetic procedures and "always forced by their pride to lie and say they pinched not, they painted not" and that "everyone pretended to believe them... laughing as soon as they turned their back." Eyre's novel, darting as it does through centuries, is an engrossing take on a timeless subject.