Conceit

“St Paul’s cathedral stands like a cornered beast on Ludgate hill, taking deep breaths above the smoke. The fire has made terrifying progress in the night and is closing in on the ancient monument from three directions. Built of massive stones, the cathedral is held to be invincible, but suddenly Pegge sees what the flames covet: the two hundred and fifty feet of scaffolding erected around the broken tower. Once the flames have a foothold on the wooden scaffolds, they can jump to the lead roof, and once the timbers burn and the vaulting cracks, the cathedral will be toppled by its own mass, a royal bear brought down by common dogs.” (p.9)

It is the Great Fire of 1666. The imposing edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a landmark of London since the twelfth century, is being reduced to rubble by the flames that engulf the City.

In the holocaust, Pegge and a small group of men struggle to save the effigy of her father, John Donne, famous love poet and the great Dean of St. Paul’s. Making their way through the heat and confusion of the streets, they arrive at Paul’s wharf. Pegge’s husband, William Bowles, anxiously scans the wretched scene, suddenly realizing why Pegge has asked him to meet her at this desperate spot.

The story behind this dramatic rescue begins forty years before the fire. Pegge Donne is still a rebellious girl, already too clever for a world that values learning only in men, when her father begins arranging marriages for his five daughters, including Pegge. Pegge, however, is desperate to taste the all-consuming desire that led to her parents’ clandestine marriage, notorious throughout England for shattering social convention and for inspiring some of the most erotic and profound poetry ever written. She sets out to win the love of Izaak Walton, a man infatuated with her older sister.

Stung by Walton’s rejection and jealous of her physically mature sisters, the boyish Pegge becomes convinced that it is her own father who knows the secret of love. She collects his poems, hoping to piece together her parents’ history, searching for some connection to the mother she barely knew.

Intertwined with Pegge’s compelling voice are those of Ann More and John Donne, telling us of the courtship that inspired some of the world’s greatest poetry of love and physical longing. Donne’s seduction leads Ann to abandon social convention, risk her father’s certain wrath, and elope with Donne. It is the undoing of his career and the two are left to struggle in a marriage that leads to her death in her twelfth childbirth at age thirty-three.

In Donne’s final days, Pegge tries, in ways that push the boundaries of daughterly behaviour, to discover the key to unlock her own sexuality. After his death, Pegge still struggles to free herself from an obsession that threatens to drive her beyond the bounds of reason. Even after she marries, she cannot suppress her independence or her desire to experience extraordinary love.

Conceit brings to life the teeming, bawdy streets of London, the intrigue-ridden court, and the lushness of the seventeenth-century English countryside. It is a story of many kinds of love — erotic, familial, unrequited, and obsessive — and the unpredictable workings of the human heart. With characters plucked from the pages of history, Mary Novik’s debut novel is an elegant, fully-imagined story of lives you will find hard to leave behind.


From the Hardcover edition.

Reviews

“A powerful and passionate historical story vividly set in 17th-century England… . Fans of novels like A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring will enjoy Novik’s perspective on one of the great figures of English literature.”
Vancouver Sun

“A magnificent novel of seventeenth-century London… . Conceit is a mind-expanding creation of a distant world in often-exhilarating detail, seen, heard, felt, smelled and tasted… . Reading Conceit is like settling into a multi-course feast that shifts your ideas of food, of the wonders that art can conjure from the staples of life… . Buy the book. Find a free weekend and a quiet place. Do not Google. Step away from the remote. Enter London, 1666, the blaze of death and life. Recall what it means to know a world through the surface of a page, created in the words of a gifted stranger, made uniquely yours by your own storehouse of experience and the mystery of your subconscious… . Conceit will cut a reviving swath through your tech-addled world.”
The Globe and Mail

“[An] extraordinary debut novel… . As delightful as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and as erudite and readable as A.S. Byatt’s Possession.”
Quill and Quire, starred review

“A hearty, boiling stew of a novel, served up in rich old-fashioned story-telling. Novik lures her readers into the streets of a bawdy seventeenth-century London with a nudge and a wink and keeps them there with her infectious love of detail and character. A raunchy, hugely entertaining read that will leave you at once satiated and hungry for more.”
—Gail Anderson-Dargatz, author of The Cure for Death by Lightning

“A gorgeous, startling, deeply moving novel… . A feast, a pageant, a seduction of words.”
—Thomas Wharton, author of Icefields

“A vivid and sensuous tale set in the world where passion and death are never far apart.”
—Eva Stachniak, author of The Winter Palace

“Read Conceit not for its foods and flowers and silks and seductions — though these are here in all their lusty Elizabethan richness — but for its prose… . Novik’s writing couples the sacred and the sexy as neatly as Donne’s own.”
—Annabel Lyon, author of The Golden Mean
“I loved Conceit, the fully formed characters, the wonderfully evoked historical setting, but above all the passion that informs the narrative throughout… . A glorious exploration of the human heart.”
—Béa Gonzalez, author of The Mapmaker’s Opera

“I’m reading a brilliant historical novel, Conceit, by Canadian Mary Novik, mostly about John Donne’s daughter. From one jury: ‘Like Girl With a Pearl Earring, Conceit is a vivid and intelligent novel with a complex female character at its heart.’ Her prose reminds me of Year of Wonders. I’m blown away.”
—Sandra Gulland, author of Mistress of the Sun