The Big Idea: Hermione Eyre
For her novel Viper Wine, author Hermione Eyre decided to get naughty. Not in the way you might think, however — her particular brand of naughtiness involves time slips and the Thin White Duke. Here’s Eyre now to explain herself a little bit more.
I didn’t want to have a Big Idea. I wanted to write a conventional historical novel. Or at least, my conscious mind did. My unconscious had other ideas. I fought it, I really did. But in the end I wrote Viper Wine, a novel set in London in 1632 amongst King Charles I’s courtiers, featuring Neil Armstrong, Naomi Campbell, Java Script Code and David Bowie lyrics. Oh, and super-snails that skid as fast as mercury.
Time, in Viper Wine, is permeable. The intellectual world of the novel is elastic. There is no time-travel per se; only one character, the alchemist, scholar, lover, explorer, pirate and archetypal Renaissance over-achiever, Sir Kenelm Digby, is subject to premonitions of the future, which he barely notices except “in twitches and pratfalls and hypnogogic visions when he was on the edge of sleep”. To me this was an exhilarating Big Idea, allowing a historical novel open and letting in our modern preoccupations and concerns, conjuring both the comic and sublime ways time present is contained in time past.
I’m superficially a law-abiding, might-I-have-the-salt-PLEASE type of person. But when I’m writing I often seem to access another, less pretty part of myself, and I really liked the transgressive shock of introducing these anachronisms into an otherwise well-behaved, well-researched historical novel. And as anyone who paints, or crafts knows, sometimes you can cheat perspective, or intensify colours by jolting the eye, and on the same principle, these outlandish red herrings made the book’s 1630s setting feel more real.
Still, it took me a while to commit to the risk of this approach. For about a year (I was also working full-time as a journalist) I kept two versions of Viper Wine running concurrently on my desktop, one “with special effects”, one without. I was always drawn to the naughty version, had more ideas for it, and felt a buzz when I read it back. I decided to follow my heart and write the whole book that way, but I fully expected publishers further down the line to tell me to cut the Calypso ice cream wrappers (Sir Kenelm finds one on Mount Vesuvius) and produce a saleable, marketable piece of historical fiction.
Except they never did. The first 30,000 words of the novel was sold by my agent Charlie Campbell (then at Ed Victor) to the legendary editor Dan Franklin at Jonathan Cape, who has previously edited Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Audrey Niffeneger…. It was then bought by the brilliant Zachary Wagman at Hogarth in the USA. So the Big Idea was now legitimate.
Viper Wine is the name of an opium-rich beauty potion that was fashionable with the ladies of Charles I’s court – until May morning 1633 when the famous beauty Venetia, Lady Digby, was discovered lying dead within the blue drapes of her four-poster bed. Her fondness for Viper Wine was popularly believed to have killed her, although suspicion also fell on her poor grieving husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, who was known to have access to many rare poisons in his alchemical laboratory. The Digbys were a golden couple, slightly exotic due to their Catholicism, and frequently painted by their friend the great artist Anthony Van Dyck, who rushed to Venetia’s bedside to paint a deathbed portrait, and then immortalized the grieving Sir Kenelm dressed as a hermit, his eyes red from crying. So far, so true.
Why improve on reality? Except the side of the story I really wanted to tell – Venetia’s – has, like so many women’s perspectives, fallen out of the official records, her letters and writings lost, even the number of children she bore unremembered. We know that she was aristocratic, motherless and scandalous in her youth, going about unchaperoned and nicknamed “bona roba” for her curves. We know that her reputation was growing rackety, with one Lord killed for her in a duel, when marriage to Sir Kenelm redeemed her and she became penitent, publishing pious writings much in the same way a reformed celebrity hellraiser publishes organic cookbooks today. But she was not entirely suited to this new persona, and we know that she gambled, and drank Viper Wine. Anachronistically speaking, she was a total diva, proud and self-hating, magnificent and vulnerable all at once. She was a character I could work with. Time, to her, is mortal, linear, fixed. Her desire not to age brings her to an early death. She comes to no understanding, to no agreement with time.
For Sir Kenelm, on the other hand, time is circular, elastic, eternally recurring. As an alchemist who was once taught transcendental meditation by a Brahmin, he was open to eastern-inspired theories about the circularity of time, represented by the ourobouros eating its own tail. He lived at a time when men (sadly, usually only men) were not restricted to one specialism or expertise, but behaved as if their time were limitless, mastering all the Arts: he had a never-quenched thirst for travel, knowledge, experiment, friendship and fame. Zelig-like, he pops up in the most unexpected places. He visited the hysterical nuns at Loudun (subject of Huxley’s book and Ken Russell’s film starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave); he is a cameo in a novel by Umberto Eco; I believe he was also painted by Picasso*.
Thinking Big and exploring the concept of time in the novel meant that I could include those extraordinary serendipities we all experience in life but which rarely fit neatly into received fictional genre norms. For example, I went to visit Gayhurst House in Buckinghamshire, formerly Sir Kenelm’s home, now luxury apartments – and stood where he would have practiced the semi-devotional, occult and repetitive work of alchemy, which he believed would hasten the age of universal peace and plenty. I discovered, with rising goosebumps, that in 1945 Gayhurst was part of Britain’s top secret code-breaking mission run by Alan Turing to decipher Hitler’s orders to his army. On the same spot where Sir Kenelm would have made the white sulphur rise, Turing’s decryption machines whirred and hummed, bringing peace.
When you take a leap and create an alternative universe, it begins to gather its own momentum. “That’s so Viper Wine!” I would think on the subway, looking at a poster of an airbrushed megastar. Or, “I’m having that in the book,” while cutting out an advert for a “must-have” beauty serum. Snake oil in new bottles, indeed. The historical novel is a wonderfully elastic genre and permitted me to graft our age together with the decadent court of Charles I, soon to be engulfed by civil war and regicide.
Sir Kenelm believed that we are all links in the golden chain of knowledge, and Van Dyck painted a famous self-portrait with a golden chain around his neck. Before I committed to my Big Idea, I thought that those chains were just mysterious Renaissance symbols. But as I wrote the novel I wanted to write, rather than the one I might cynically have believed would be popular, I began to see to see that we are connected to the past and future, ourselves links in an ongoing chain. Viper Wine is intended to make us question how future generations will link back to us. It is the same with the process of writing and reading, since one is nothing without the other. So thank you for reading this, and I wish you all the best of your own Big Idea; may it also take you to places you never expected to go.
*actually this is more likely to be Velasquez’s portrait from Picasso’s Las Meninas suite, although it does look uncannily like Sir Kenelm, in costume and appearance.