In 2006, Sophia Coppola’s historical drama Marie Antoinette threw viewers and film critics into a pastel pleasure world full of macaroons, rock music — and perplexity. Instead of following the history-book details of Marie Antoinette’s life, Coppola gave the Queen of France Manolo Blahnik shoes and a New Wave soundtrack. By using contemporary anachronisms, Marie Antoinette became a modern woman, struggling with the isolation and emptiness that a life of great wealth and renown can bring. Coppola stated her goals for the film clearly in an interview with IGN: “It is not a documentary of history. I wanted it to be impressionistic and be close to what it might have felt at the time.”
Hermione Eyre wanted to invoke the same feeling of the present’s connection to the past in her debut historical novel, Viper Wine. The book pays particularly close attention to the all-consuming quest for youth and feminine beauty. “I was trying to understand Botox and beauty treatments by looking backwards, looking at it from an oblique angle,” Eyre told me in a recent phone interview. “A novel seemed like a good place to try to understand how beauty potions are changing our culture today.”
The novel’s story came into focus when Eyre viewed a painting by Van Dyck entitled “Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, on her Deathbed.” The painting depicts a beautiful woman — Venetia Stanley — just a few hours after her unexpected death in 1633. Commissioned by her grief stricken husband, it stood as a testament to his devotion. It was believed that her premature death came from drinking viper wine, a popular beauty drink for ladies of the 17th century. Eyre’s curiosity was piqued and she dove into research on the couple, in particular, the mysterious Venetia Stanley. The result is the unusual heroine of Eyre’s novel.
Viper Wine presents a fictionalized version of Venetia Stanley her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby. They were the 17th century’s version of a Kim-and-Kanye power couple: Venetia’s notorious wit and beauty landed her in the court of Charles I, and Sir Kenelm sailed off on adventures while studying alchemy and natural philosophy.
Woven throughout this fictional account of the Digbys’ lives are playful anachronisms, connecting the 17th century to our own time. Just as Coppola’s Marie Antionette danced to a song by New Order in the ballroom of Versailles, so Sir Kenelm hums David Bowie songs while scribbling down alchemic recipes in his study. While drifting to sleep, he overhears snatches of Naomi Campbell lamenting the physical cost of beauty treatments. In Viper Wine, past and present flow into one another and Eyre litters every chapter with delightful and unexpected connections.
I spoke to Eyre on the phone about the inspiration for the award-winning novel, her research on alchemy, and her work in reclaiming the forgotten history of women.
(This conversation has been lightly edited)
Catherine Eaton: First off, you have a wonderful name for a writer.
Hermione Eyre: Thank you! I’ve noticed a degree of skepticism online: “Is this her pen name? I assume the name is made up.” And it’s just my name. My mother was dear friends with Hermione Gingold, a comedienne who appeared the film Gigi among many others. She is my godmother and I was honored to be named after her. My surname is from the Midlands and my father’s from Birmingham. And of course, there’s Jane Eyre. It’s just happy that both of my names have literary residents. Then there’s Hermione in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, along with Laertes. And, of course, there is the Hermione we won’t mention. One is slightly more highbrow than the other. What can I do? I have written under a pseudonym; obviously I can’t reveal what it was, but it was slightly risqué. It was for a literary erotic review I wrote for once or twice. But I’m very proud of Viper Wine and I definitely wanted to have my own name on it.
Eaton: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
Eyre: Always. I did some TV and film acting as a child. That was an interesting experience and I was lucky. I did a Tom Stoppard play at Oxford and some Shakespeare, and that helps develop one’s ear. Acting is a wonderful, but for me, being a writer has been the most rewarding. In personal terms– probably not financially.
Eaton: Your novel centers on the real lives of 17th nobleman extraordinaire Sir Kenelm Digby and his wife, Venetia. Though they were notorious in their own time, they’re not well known today and I was curious how you came to find them and when you realized their personalities could carry a novel.
Eyre: They are peripheral characters in English history, and yet they crop up with encouraging frequency in sources from the time. You come across a book in the 17th century and go straight to the D index, and often there’s a side note glance at Sir Kenelm Digby. He was so extraordinary and he had a finger in many different pies, as was legitimate in the Renaissance in a way that’s not today. Today we specialize in one field of study but they didn’t back then. So if you look in a book of medicine or herbal history, he’ll be in there! And then he’ll be in a book about paintings by Van Dyck! Which, to answer your question, is where I first came across the heroine Venetia Stanley, unfortunately a few hours dead. But she’s very much a great presence in the deathbed painting by Van Dyck, and I had to know more than what they said about it in the guidebook to the gallery.
You know how your unconscious does when you’re writing, you squirrel away things all the time that might be possibly useful. I think I’d done that on three separate occasions, not even connecting Sir Kenelm with Venetia, and gradually I realized that these people had sparked my interest several times. I knew I had to follow that and do a bit of research. The more research I did, it was like pulling on a rope that keeps on going; I got tugged into the story. I very much like working with a true story because you have to rise to meet the facts in a way. As a first time novelist, I might have tried to make my novel more simple, easier to execute, but I wasn’t allowed to do that because I had to be true to what happened. She died in these tragic circumstances, and I really had to go for it. So I found the true story spurred me on.
Eaton: Sir Kenelm left behind an amazing amount of work but with Venetia, I think you mentioned there’s none of her work left besides these images and paintings. Did you view this novel as a vindication of Venetia?
Eyre: A sort of anti-vindication, because history records how pious she is and I didn’t want to add to the hagiography of women. “Oh, they were such wonderful wives and mothers and gave all their money away and were meek and mild and nice!” I didn’t think that this was really true in this case. Perhaps that was one aspect of her at one point in her life, she chose to present a kind of reformed character to the world. But for me, she was quite self-serving, very tough in many ways as women are. A fantastic, wonderful, loveable, charismatic person but, of course, with terrible failings. What I’m doing is perhaps an act of reclamation, as one might reclaim the word “queer” or bad characteristics for women, perhaps rejoicing in them not being good and meek and mild. A slightly frightening powerful side to women.
Eaton: Let’s discuss the setting and language of Viper Wine. It takes place in England during the reign of Charles I in the early 1600’s. To modern ears, the language and thinking of that time can be stiff and overwrought. But you made it entirely accessible—much as Hilary Mantel made the 1500s accessible in her Wolf Hall series. How did you go about doing it?
Eyre: Reconstructing the past in a fresh way?
Eaton: Yes, in way that modern readers can grasp; the older language can be quite dry and hard to get through.
Eyre: For me, anachronisms were a way of jolting us out of that slightly complacent feeling about the past. “They were living slightly more primitive lives, they didn’t know as much as we know, they weren’t as enlightened as we are.” So the anachronisms in the text helped, like an electric shock, to make the reader think, “Oh! we’re not dealing with that past, what is this?” It’s designed to slightly open people’s minds to these characters and to their feelings, to perhaps entertain the possibility that they know more than we do.
Of course, they don’t actually know David Bowie, they don’t know about things like distant galaxies that have not been seen through early telescopes. There was the element of trying to refresh the reader’s feeling about the past and then refresh the sense of genre, the historical novel. I couldn’t do it in a straight way. I’m probably like you, I’m an omnivorous reader, I don’t just read historical fiction. And for me, a piece of genre fiction has to be the crowning example of the genre. It has to be doing something to push at the genre it belongs to, the way I felt Hilary Mantel combines elements. I was definitely thinking of the films of Derek Jarman and a little bit Sophia Coppola. Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio has a rock and roll soundtrack and the most beautiful depictions of the Renaissance on screen. That little jarring thing! He does that as well in Edward II, with Andrew Tiernan and Tilda Swinton.
Eaton: Alchemy is threaded through nearly every scene in the book. I’ve always seen alchemy as something arcane written by cranky mad men, but you make it quite accessible, even delightful. How did you hit upon its connection to imagination and beginning of science?
Eyre: The more I read about it, the more I realized that the public perception of alchemy is not really fair. The idea that it’s a confidence trick to make money, that’s the very low end of alchemy. Most of it is very philosophical, and evolved quite naturally into what we call science.
I put that next to the status of beauty and beauty treatments, which are so appallingly frivolous and lowbrow, and I liked very much the idea that they weren’t very different. They were both searching; the elixir of eternal life was the aim of both. Perhaps alchemy could be a bit silly, and perhaps beauty preparations could be profound. I was trying to turn the two on their heads a little bit.
Eaton: One of the things that really struck me about Sir Kenelm is that he understands the predicament of his wife’s waning good looks. He says to his brother, “She was a beauty. It was her very essence and life’s designation. It is a strange and cruel punishment to be stripped of a title for no reason other than the movement of time.” He understands the unfairness of Venetia’s position better than she seems to herself. Why did you give those words to him and not to her?
Eyre: Isn’t it always quite hard for us to understand ourselves? I think she understands him. She knows that he is not actually going to triumph as an alchemist. She just knows that what he’s doing is kind of moving metal around in saucepans. We’re perhaps not our own best judges; imagine if Venetia did have that self-knowledge. “Okay, society has stripped me of my title.” Then what does she do next? How does she use that knowledge? She sort of knows that, but it doesn’t really help her.
Eaton: One of the delightful and sobering parts of Viper Wine is the juxtaposition of beauty treatments from the 17th century with their modern equivalents. Venetia drinks a concoction made of viper organs and pregnant mare urine, but today Kate the Duchess of Cambridge has facials containing bee venom. There’s not a huge different between those things!
Eyre: The mare’s urine was actually taken from present day Hormone Replacement Therapy. So it’s a constituent of HRT: premarin. It’s an acronym for Pregnant Mare’s Urine. That’s where they got the name!
Eaton: There’s a brilliant moment when Sir Kenelm returns from seafaring adventures and gives his version of a 17th century press conference. He opens up his home to the learned and the curious and answers all of their questions about his travels. One woman–carrying a notebook entitled ‘Viper Wine’–asks him if he still loves his wife. And that woman is revealed as you, the author. It’s a daring move to stick yourself in your own novel; were you just not able to resist?
Eyre: The idea of slipping myself into the story in that outrageously postmodern fashion was a sort of, “Why not?”
There’s very little that’s personal in the book, but it’s a little “Hello, I’m here!” I wanted to claim that authorship just for a second. I like the spectacle of a relatively young woman writing about these men who would never have paid any attention to her. They would have never thought she was educated enough to write about them or understand their writings. I felt a slight moment of amusement–what would he have thought about me writing about him? I would have quite liked to tap him on the shoulder in that moment.
Eaton: Towards the end of the novel, Venetia saves a drowning girl from one of London’s sewage-filled rivers. After she pulls the girl out, she’s met with suspicious stares and a total lack of gratitude. She reflects that if a man fished the girl out, he’d be met with applause and adoration. Yet here she is with the strength and daring of a man, and she receives no admiration or thanks. It’s the one moment in the novel, I think, where she compares herself to a man.
Eyre: I didn’t want to be finger-wagging, like “If you toy with nature and take beauty potions, you’ll lose your strength and die as a consequence!” It was meant to be a moment that represented the good that beauty potions can achieve if they take away your self-consciousness and just make you live more fully and more bravely. I think they can. It’s kind of a nod to all of the adventures that don’t get recorded; she doesn’t get celebrated for it.
Eaton: I was relieved that it happened, because she’s such a powerhouse. And what you see so much of is her at home sewing, talking to other women… and finally she gets to move. Finally, some outward manifestation of this inward strength!
Eyre: Yes! Exactly. And unsentimental as well. She says that someone else can do the washing and cleaning of this child, I have saved her life. Often men do the heroism and we do the soft stuff, the mopping up, then she does the opposite.
Eaton: Viper Wine was very well received; it was nominated for the Folio Prize, the Walter Scott Prize, and won the Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle Award. Do you have any plans for another novel?
Eyre: Next book! Well, I’m interested in the 1930s, and this amazing female photographer, but I can’t reveal any more… It’s at a very early stage. I’m also writing about young artists, but I’m afraid that the struggles of Venetia — to look outward rather than being stuck in the domestic sphere — is exactly what I’m struggling with at the moment. I have a two year old daughter, and the dream of uninterrupted time, going to the British Library and art galleries at will… it’s not quite like that anymore. I’m quite dedicated to writing, but you can’t force it. It might take a while, but it will happen!
Catherine Eaton is a contributor to The Stake. Catherine is a writer living in a western suburb of Chicago. She blogs over at sparrowpost.com and enjoys foraging around the neighborhood in her spare time.