The observant reader will immediately deduce that there is something a little unusual about this novel set in 17th-century England if he or she notices that the cover features a portrait of Van Dyck’s Lady Venetia Digby holding an iPhone. Lady Digby is, or more correctly was, a celebrated society beauty. Unfortunately, she worries about losing her looks and figure. She is married to Sir Kenelm Digby – Renaissance man par excellence – explorer, pirate, scientist, bibliophile and mystic. He is a man of many talents who seems to have the ability to unconsciously take ideas, memes and elements of 21st-century life: lines from modern-day pop songs enter his thoughts and language. Digby refuses to provide remedies to address Venetia’s concerns about her fading looks despite the deep and enduring love for his wife. Hence she visits a quack who provides the eponymous liquid. Ingredients include the venom of adders plus a liberal dose of opium. It is hardly surprising that Venetia quickly becomes addicted to Viper Wine and the transformation it performs in her self-image.
This brief synopsis of the plot would suggest a rather odd fable. But the story works, brilliantly so. Hermione Eyre imbues the reader in 17th-century life, society and conventions and tells a superb story, whilst taking a swipe at modern day attitudes to perceived beauty and the industry that panders and exploits mostly feminine desires to put off the unavoidable change from the lush ripeness of youth.