Between the two of them, husband and wife Sir Kenelm Digby and Venetia Stanley embody an age. Digby lived in the curious world of pre-Scientific Revolution discovery, when alchemy was studied as seriously as anatomy. Venetia was a court beauty who acted in masques for King Charles I. Hermione Eyre’s curious blend of non-fiction and invention, Viper Wine, is a meditation on Venetia’s quest for beauty and Kenelm’s equally consuming quest for knowledge in the waning days of Charles’ reign.
Do writers of historical fiction have a certain duty to fact? I have known readers who swear off the entire genre because they constantly wonder what really happened and what is historically implausible. Viper Wine doesn’t fall between fact and fiction so much as it makes use of both while commenting on their limitations. I’ve used both genre tags for this post because I can’t think of a word that adequately describes what Eyre is up to in this book.
I was reading Viper Wine as historical fiction until I came across small portraits of Venetia and Sir Kenelm. (The cover of many editions of this book reproduce actual portraits of Venetia. The cover in this post has a portrait of Venetia by Anthony van Dyck, painted around 1633. The original is in Britain’s National Gallery.) The discovery of the portraits sent me back to the GoodReads description, which didn’t help much. As I read on, I found that Eyre had peppered her text with quotes from Sir Kenelm’s letters and papers, contemporary and modern poetry, quotes from medical texts, and more. Other passages have constructed dialog and read like fiction.
The plot—if I can actually call what happens in Viper Wine plot—covers the last year of Venetia Stanley’s life and a few years following. Sir Kenelm has just returned from causing an international incident by attacking the Venetians. Over the years, Venetia has become pathologically concerned about her looks and has retired to the family’s country estate. Sir Kenelm’s return also means that the couple has to return to court. Once she’s back in London, Venetia seeks out the means to restore her looks. She eventually lights on Lancelot Choice and the eponymous Viper Wine—a concoction of adder venom (probably Vipera berus), pregnant mare urine, and opium, for the most part. The potion works, encouraging Venetia to go so far as to submit to a primitive kind of Botox by having her face injected with Vipera venom to freeze her face muscles. Meanwhile, Sir Kenelm is building a gargantuan library and pursuing his own investigations in to, well, everything. He can’t seem to settle on a specialty.
Eyre writes about Venetia’s growing obsession with beauty, detailing the various cosmetics and medicaments she uses to maintain deathly white skin, fight wrinkles, and erase liver spots. (Coincidentally, I read a short photo essay on the history of poisonous makeup while reading Viper Wine.) As a character, Venetia inspires pity. Were she alive today, she would probably be diagnosed with some kind of body dysmorphia. When she was young, before she married Sir Kenelm and had children, Venetia’s entire identity was wrapped up in her appearance. Now that her beauty has faded (debatable), who is Venetia?
After Venetia’s sudden death during the night of April 30, Sir Kenelm becomes the primary protagonist. (Can you call it a spoiler if you can read what happens in a Wikipedia article?) Sir Kenelm is destroyed by his wife’s death and becomes even stranger. Eyre depicts Sir Kenelm as a man who’s mind is adrift in time. He practices Transcendental Meditation and makes Monty Python references. He exchanges dialog with the writer and Andy Warhol. It’s hard to know what we’re supposed to make of a man who, in 1632, appears to find a book written in Java code.
So, I ask again, what is the duty of an author of historical fiction to fact? It’s clear that Eyre has thrown the rule book out of the metaphorical window. I still don’t know what to make of this so meta book. I know some readers are going to hate it, because it’s not one thing or the other. Even though I had no idea what Eyre was up to, I found myself enjoying the strangeness of Viper Wine. Historical fiction, to me, is a way of bringing the past to life in a way that nonfiction usually can’t. The historical record is too full of gaps and too dull to capture attention the way that fiction can. And yet, neither of the genres really do justice to the context of people like Venetia and Sir Kenelm. They were people of their age, but historians and artists are still talking about them. They still have influence.
Perhaps the truth of Venetia and Sir Kenelm doesn’t lie inbetween the genres. Perhaps their truth is more complicated and connected than we ever realized.
I received a copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 14 April 2015.