What’s It About
This is the story of Sir Kenelm Digby and his wife Venetia. They were the IT couple of the 17th Century and their story is one of beauty potions, vanity, religion, scientific discovery based on rational deduction rather than mysticism and, sadly, tragedy.
Yesterday she [Venetia] was in her knot garden at the front of the house, clipping the box-hedges using her dainty silver shears – play-gardening, as Kenelm called it – when a youth in the livery of the Earl of Dorset arrived. She put down her basket and smiled her famous smile at the livery boy, the smile Ben Jonson had written a sonnet about, and Peter Oliver painted; the smile that was so much in demand that a royal writ was put out to send any unlicensed copyist to prison, and still copies came. She stood there, her hip askew, so confident, the breeze in her flowing hair, her loose country dress full and soft. ‘Madam,’ said the boy, bowing like a silly sapling, then looking her full in the face. ‘Could you tell me where to find her most gracious beauty Venetia, Lady Digby?’
Should I Read It?
I would like to thank the Kitschie judges for pointing me in the direction of this marvellous book, a novel I wasn’t aware of until I saw it appear on the Golden Tentacle shortlist. While Viper Wine may be a tad overlong and at times a little too self aware for its own good, it is a fascinating, insightful portrait of a time and place that was slowly but surely transitioning between mysticism and quackery to rationalism and evidence based science. And, I fell in love with Venetia and Kenelm, which makes their historically accurate but tragic end to their story (revealed in the novel’s opening pages) all the more sad and powerful.
Viper Wine is a novel of contradictions. Set in the 17th Century and starring the Brad and Angelina of their time – Kenelm and Venetia Digby – the novel critiques today’s beauty industry while also illustrating the transition from science based on mysticism to science based on rationality and evidence. The contradiction is that while the desire to be beautiful at whatever cost still plagues Western society, that same society now takes a very rational and methodical approach to scientific discovery. And one wonder how a society that still pushes woman (and men) toward the quackery of revitalising creams and salves can also be the same society that’s cured any number of diseases, put men on the moon and invented the internet.
Hermione Eyre’s intent is not to answer that question or to resolve the contradiction, but to highlight its existence. Venetia and Kenelm, famous in their time, though I had never heard of them prior to reading Viper Wine, provide Eyre with the perfect case study.
In Venetia Digby we have a woman whose youthful beauty captured the imagination of poet Ben Johnson. A woman who is desperate to maintain her looks, who refuses to accept that she is getting older, that she might be losing the ability to turn the heads of men. And Venetia will go to any lengths to keep those wrinkles at bay:
[Venetia] ‘I have been peeled weekly with sulphur mithridate, and then every night I apply butter of antimony. It is said to counteract all the lead that has embedded in my cheeks from too much painting, which is the reason for my runckles . . .’ She started to cry a little, at the unfairness of it. No one warned her that painting with lead would be so injurious – it was what every beauty used. ‘The mithridate burns, to be sure, and sometimes welts a little, but I have grown to love its whip upon my cheek. I miss it dreadfully now I have run out. But my poor apothecary tried to cure his hot gout with drinking lily-water, and it did not work, and now his shop is shut up and he is quite dead.’
She giggled again, while wiping a tear.
In the end she is compelled to use Viper Wine, “an addictive mixture of tongues, hearts and innards of vipers baked overnight, and combined with rare aloes and balsams.” While the physicians of the time were less than clear as to what led to Venetia’s death at such a young age – many believed Kenelm murdered her – Eyre proposes that it was Venetia’s fruitless search for the fountain of youth and her ingestion of Viper Wine that ultimately sent her to an early grave.
And then we have Kenelm Digby, a natural philosopher and alchemist, whose interest in science drew him closer to a rational understanding of the world around us. He’s a man fascinated by scientific discovery, epitomised by a brilliant scene, set on the Thames, where he watches the voyage of one of the first submersible vessels. It’s a moment of steampunk that also happens to be historically accurate.
That’s not to say that Kenelm was the one rationalist in a world of mystics and spiritualists. Like most natural philosophers and thinkers of his time, Kenelm had a number of wacky theories – such as the ability to use “sympathetic magic” to cure people over great distances – but he also believed there were such thing as atoms (based on the Aristotelian concept). It was a view that put him at odds with the Catholic church*:
Plenty of men found him Overreaching, or Heretical, because he believed the air was full of thousands of tiny invisible particles, darting about in the void, giving life and breath, without divine direction. This was clearly heresy, and the Jesuits even made a prayer to deny it: ‘Nothing comes of Atomes . . .’ Kenelm had doubted it himself, at first – who could easily believe that the air was not empty, but vastly manifest and substantial?
Acknowledging his foresight, Eyre provides Kenelm with glimpses of the future. These hallucinatory moments, which Kenelm takes in his stride, frame him as a modern man who, with some minor modifications to his worldview, would have been very much at home in the 20th and 21st Century.
But even as a man transitioning from spiritualism to evidence-based science, when it comes to gender and the role of woman, Kenelm’s attitudes are very much of his time. He does warn Ventia away from dangerous ointments and potions inspite of her protestations that he’s not doing enough to help her:
[Venetia] ‘I cannot bear it. I do not know why you persist in this nonsense of moonlight – this, ha, lunacy – when there are other, better cures available, which you well know.’
[Kenelm] ‘Other cures? What do you mean? Have I not provided you with every safe cure I know of? Have I not imported snails into our grounds from distant climes, at some cost? And yet you will not have them for healing purposes, neither taking their slime to drink nor submitting to have them crawl upon your face.’
She turned to look at him, and her skin was blotchy with tears. ‘I will not speak of those snails! I would have thought that you, a man of Physick, schooled in chemistry, would know better than to chase after village remedies.’
Sir Kenelm leaned forward, very serious. ‘It is because I know the power of Physick that I caution you against it.’
‘Other ladies drink preparations.’
‘You have no need of other ladies’ cures. You barely have any need of a cure at all.’ ‘You do not understand.’ ‘I do, my love.’
And yet, he expects her to remain beautiful:
Kenelm, on his side of the bed, was fighting to stop himself feeling cross with her. He had come home in triumph; it was the very least she could do to stay beautiful for him. She was only five years older than him – many wives were older than their husbands. And if she could not keep her beauty, she should at least maintain her faith in her beauty, since that was the chiefest thing, was it not?
While Venetia desire to remain gorgeous can’t entirely be laid at the feet of Kenelm and his want for a beautiful wife, it’s interesting that he sees her beauty as a reward that he has earned. A possession that he owns. And this idea that women pretty themselves for the sake of men continues to fuel and fill the coffers of the beauty industry. Philosophers and thinkers, like Kenelm, may have allowed humanity to make leaps and bounds in significant areas of science, however our backward attitudes toward gender has given the beauty industry the permission to peddle the same non scientific rubbish they were hawking more than three hundred years ago.
As depressing as all that sounds, there’s a cheekiness to Eyre’s prose that results in a number of funny scenes – such as Venetia and her friends outdoing each other in terms of the beauty treatments they’re undergoing – and memorable characters such as Chater the priest. Yes, he has the stereotypical aspect of the closeted gay, but his love for Venetia is a highlight of the novel.
However, Viper Wine does have some structural issues, other being a little overlong. Mary’s story, that wends its way through the narrative (she’s hoping that Kenelm can help her mortally wounded friend with his ability to cure disease from a distance) adds very little to the overall story. And some of the glimpses into the future are just a tad too pretentious and self aware, including a cringe-worthy scene where Michael Parkinson, Jonathan Ross and Hermione Eyre (though she’s not named) interview Kenelm about his recent journey and his wife.
Still, this is a historical fiction that not only pushes the boundaries as to what historical fiction should look like (and mostly succeeds) but has something fascinating to say about our current attitude to science and beauty and vanity. I might not have heard of Venetia and Kenelm Digby before I read this good, but I won’t soon forget them.
* Eyre also deals with Kenelm’s struggle to reconcile his Catholic upbringing with the political need to convert to Anglicanism.