The year, we are told, is 1632 – although, in Hermione Eyre’s artful, sensuous debut novel – even this simple fact may not be quite as clear-cut as it first seems.
Viper Wine begins as a straightforward dramatisation of real events: the last years of Venetia Stanley, wife of Sir Kenelm Digby, the traveller, natural scientist, alchemist and philosopher. Considered once to have been a great beauty, painted by Peter Oliver and praised in verse by Ben Jonson, Venetia, now past thirty, believes that her good looks have faded. Desperate to reclaim them at any cost and against the protestations of her husband, she turns to shady, charming Lancelot Choice, a purveyor of lotions, tonics and cures, who offers her ‘viper wine’, a draught that promises to restore lost pulchritude.
The effect, at least in Venetia’s not altogether objective opinion, is all but immediate, ‘reddening her cheek, plumping the flesh around her collar bone, and stroking her neck softer and smoother’. Such a transformation comes, inevitably, at a cost. Spiced with opium, the cure is deeply addictive and the need