Conceit, Mary Novik

ConceitMary Novik’s novel Conceit is the story of John Donne’s daughter Pegge and her quest to discover what love is. She is entranced by her parents’ relationship—in an unusual move for their time, they married for love, but by the end of his life, Novik’s Donne seems to regret this decision in some ways as he searches for husbands for his own daughters and tries to suppress his past and his feelings for Ann, who died years before the novel’s events. He is concerned about the legacy he leaves behind and works hard to construct an expurgated life story for himself, focused on his work as Dean of St. Paul’s. The novel begins as Pegge braves the Great Fire of London in 1666 to save the effigy of her father in St. Paul’s and travels back through Pegge’s memories of her father’s death, the memories of her own parents, and forward again to Pegge’s life as a wife, mother, and grandmother.

Novik brings seventeenth century England to life in this novel. In many cases, I think writers of historical fiction create characters who act too much like modern people. This novel reminded me of Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun (review here) in its attention to period detail. Novik has managed to capture a place that seems much more real than most historical fiction novels do. Even though Pegge is somewhat eccentric for her time, I found her completely plausible as a character because of Novik’s skill as a writer. What else would the daughter of John Donne be? I found myself shaking my head at her and sympathizing with her husband William a great deal, but she was oddly endearing. I really enjoyed reading about all of her experiments (from fish recipes to horticulture). A favorite quote by Novik’s Donne from the novel:

“That is my last poem, Pegge. See that it gets to Marriot for printing with the others.  I am glad it was you who came into the room just now. Of all my children, you have the most poetry in you, thought God knows how you will use it.”(214)

Conceit is a rare historical novel that allows the reader to feel immersed in a time period, learn some history, and enjoy the story all at once.

Rating: ★★★★★

I read this book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. I’ve read three now. Twelve more to go!

The Lady and the Poet, Maeve Haran

The Lady and the PoetMaeve Haran’s novel The Lady and the Poet chronicles the romance and ultimate marriage of British poet John Donne and Ann More, whose father is a third generation knight in the employ of Queen Elizabeth. He has in mind a much more prestigious match for his daughter than a poet who is the son of an ironmonger, but Ann has romantic sensibilities and strong opinions, and John Donne is who she wants. Haran’s novel is told from the point of view of Ann More, giving voice to a lady who is historically silent. The novel is ultimately a historical romance that describes how the poet and his lady fell in love and managed to marry, despite her father’s wishes.

One of my gauges of whether I loved a novel or not is my ability to put it down. I never had much trouble putting this one down. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat for John Donne or Lady Ann. Of course, I knew how it would end, but that doesn’t always prevent me from flipping madly to see how it ended up that way. On the other hand, it was a well-researched, historically accurate description of life late in Queen Elizabeth’s reign. I enjoyed some of those historical details. I enjoyed learning more about the Donnes, and historical evidence does support the notion that their marriage was a love match. I did mark a couple of passages that I enjoyed. In one, George More, Ann’s father, is admonishing Ann to stay away from Donne by describing his verse:

“[T]here is one whose company I would fain you shun, since it befits not an innocent maiden. Master John Donne. Your uncle thinks highly of him yet I came across some verse of his being handed round the Inns of Court and laughed over by its inmates like naughty schoolboys. It seemed to be both lewd, and, even worse, satirical. (104)

You have to watch out for that satire. Here’s another in which I read a modern criticism of Twitter (and yes, I acknowledge it’s just me):

Yet Prudence’s sadness at having to leave London the moment when she had just arrived, and her twittering response to each sight we passed on the road, no matter how trivial, from the marvel of paving stones, to the fascination of every shop, tavern or bear pit, and the exclamation every two minutes at how polite the Lord Keeper’s servants had been when I am sure these august gentlemen took her for a humble rustic, made me wish she had stayed behind. (108)

John Donne
John Donne as he looked when Ann More would have met him.

I’m not sorry I read it because of the insight it gave me into the life of John Donne, whose poetry I teach my British Literature students. However, it never really grabbed and convinced me I needed to keep turning pages.

Unfortunately, I ruined my copy by getting it wet. I set it carefully down next to the bath in a place I thought was dry, but was actually a puddle (thanks to my son). It took days to dry. I’ve never seen a book so wet.

Rating: ★★★½☆

This is my first book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. Fourteen more to go!

Reading Update: December 26, 2010


I hope that you had a nice Christmas, if you celebrate it, and of course, I hope you received a lot of books. My daughter gave me a copy of Catching Fire, which is the only book in The Hunger Games Trilogy that I didn’t own. When I read it, I borrowed it from a friend. Curiously, that was the only book I received, but I think the thing is folks know it’s almost better to give me a gift card or certificate instead of an actual book. I gave several books for Christmas, though. My son received copies of Art & Max by David Wiesner and The Logo Design Workbook by Noreen Morioka, Terry Stone, and Sean Williams, which might seem like an odd book if you don’t know my son. He’s fascinated by logos and is on his way to being a graphic designer when he grows up. My younger daughter Maggie received a box set of Judy Blume’s Fudge books and a version of A Christmas Carol illustrated by Brett Helquist. My oldest daughter Sarah received Incarceron by Catherine Fisher and a collection of Shakespearean insults edited by Wayne F. Hill and Cynthia J. Ottchen. My husband received his very own Kindle. I didn’t give books to my parents, but I did cross stitch bookmarks for them.

I’m still reading Mansfield Park, and I really hope to finish it by the end of the year so that I can say I finished the Everything Austen Challenge. If I do, I will have completed all the challenges I tried, so I’m going to try to finish. I have to say I’m finding it to be very different from Austen’s other books. I’m not finding much spark in the characters, but the situations are different. It’s really interesting to contrast with her other works.

I’m also still reading The Lady and the Poet by Maeve Haran. At this point in the story, Ann More has met John Donne. Pretty much sparks right off the bat. I will be interested to see if Haran includes the story about the writing of “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” The story goes that Donne had to go to France and leave a pregnant Ann behind. She didn’t want him to go, and it’s said she had a bad feeling about his going. He wrote the poem urging her to remember they never truly were separated because of their deep connection to each other. Here is the poem, if you’d like to read it.

Supposedly while he was in France, Donne had a vision of Ann holding a dead child, and sure enough, the baby was stillborn. It sounds as if their marriage was a true romance. It’s nice to read about marriages in that time period that were based on love. As Ann’s cousin Francis says on p. 65, “What hath love to do with marriage? You are too sweet on such things, Ann. One would believe you had buried yourself in bowers of green with shepherds trilling on flutes and swains plighting love all day at Loseley. Marriage is a business arrangement, as you well know. Love can be found elsewhere.” Seems to have been the prevailing attitude for so much of history. I wonder what our ancestors would make of our insistence on marrying for love.

So what are you reading? And did you get any books for Christmas? Do tell!

photo credit: schani