Viper Wine is loosely based on the life of a real person, Venetia Stanley, a renowned beauty and free spirit from the seventeenth century who caused waves in society with her looks and carefree attitude.
The story starts later on in Venetia’s life, when she is married to Sir Kenelm Digby with a few children and her beauty is definitely fading. People are startled when they are told who she is. Venetia refuses to leave their country house and return to London where society will cruelly judge her. If she has to go anywhere then she uses a thick veil to hide her face. Modern readers can sympathise as she longs to return to her previous body and begins to search out ways to bring her looks back.
Running parallel to Venetia’s story is Sir Kenelm’s tale. He is a scientist, an adventurer, and a time traveller, and has recently come back from travelling with plenty to share with his peers. Unfortunately he has to share them with people who visit him at his estate as Venetia won’t return to London. There is an interesting twist to Kenelm; he can tap into the future. Not consciously or with awareness of what it is he hears, but he receives messages that are connected in some way to the current predicament. It’s helped by the huge radio pylon he puts up in the garden – Kenelm not knowing what it is but assuming it is an artefact of some kind.
This creates a mish mash of current and past perceptions on beauty and society, showing that not much has changed in the last four hundred years. Eyre uses the dual timeline to draw our attention to the claims of the beauty industry and show what people, women especially, are prepared to go through to retain their looks.
And then we come to viper wine. This was also a true substance created by a quack, Lancelot Choice, for the ladies of that century. It wasn’t advertised, only women who found out about it through word of mouth could have access to it, and Venetia was one of the early adopters of this drink, according to Eyre. It brought back Venetia, her beauty and her sparkle, and she is accepted back in the upper echelons of society as before.
But it’s never enough.
This book takes the reader through the life of the aristocracy of the Stuarts through the eyes of this couple, ending with Venetia’s early death.
Any Cop?: It’s a great use of magic realism to tell a story and using it to comment on society now, especially with the use of beauty slogans and excerpts from contemporary models’ interview about the treatments they have. The language is beautiful, creating fantastic images with her descriptions. A little slow to get into it but worth it.