I absolutely loved this book. Each page was a pleasure. Conceit by Mary Novik is set in seventeenth century London and the majority of the novel is from the perspective of Pegge Donne, the youngest daughter of the metaphysical poet and Dean of St Paul's Cathedral John Donne. Metaphysical poetry has a reputation for being a bit complicated, a little obscure, and heavy on religion and sex. I was not sure therefore what to expect here and whether the flavour, so to speak, of metaphysical poetry would really translate well to the novel form.
Pegge is a warm and lively girl in love with Izaak Walton of The Compleat Angler fame. She wants not the arranged marriage of social and pecuniary advantage but the kind of passion her parents had when they were young; the kind of passion that made them run away and landed John Donne temporarily in prison. He famously ended a letter from Fleet Prison with "John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done", after his marriage to Anne More. Walton however continues to elude Pegge.
Pegge's feelings echo much of Donne's most famous poems. Donne's early poetry certainly seethes with physical emotion, Elegy XX being a prime example. The passion of the marriage of the Donnes certainly bore fruit, 12 children in 16 years of marriage, before Anne's inevitable death as result of her last childbirth.
At the time of the main narrative Donne is old, dying and quite a character. He plays the role of sanctimonious Dr Donne beautifully, preserving his clerical reputation and trying to forget his rather more lively past. The contrasts between his age and Pegge's youth, between what he wants for her now and what he once enjoyed himself is marked. Pegge is a disappointment and a handful because she is too like him. Despite everything there is a lovely warmth to their relationship.
Pegge is a lovely guide to seventeenth century London. Walton is a robust, stoical figure, oddly unromantic, but he clearly drives Pegge wild. And despite his constant passion for her older sister Con the friendship between Pegge and Walton is real and persists.
London too rises from this novel in clear focus.The poverty, riches, sights and smells emanate from the page as lively and as infuriating as Pegge. From the start Pegge and the city mirror each other; a prolepsis set during the Fire of London when Donne's St Paul's is lost shows Pegge sooty and bedraggled as her city. Pegge's concern in the heat of the fire is to rescue her father's monument, the designing of which later forms a lively part of the narrative. We see from her husband William's point of view:
Crates and baskets and rounds of cheese are piled helter-skelter on the quay since there are no boats left to ferry goods across the river. The desperate have set their possessions adrift, hoping to recover them with boat-hooks when they float below the bridge. William's hand flutters near his sword, ready to defend his ship and his wife, but Pegge is at home in the milling crowd, squatting next to the burnt cat to calm it while the men ease the horse cart through the mass of people and goods on the wharf. She must have paid the wharfinger in advance, for he attaches his hook to the bundled statue at once, lowering it with jerking motions into the barge. As the effigy settlers into the stern William feels the full weight of his father-in-law John Donne, who has been dead for more than thirty years.
The fractions in the relationship between Donne and his daughter are reflected in the narrative. There are some odd jolts and jumps between narrators. The dead Ann More gives her views on the elderly Donne's over concern for his clerical reputation, and Donne too narrates part of his earlier, pre-Pegge, life. Like the jolts in the relationship between Pegge and Donne, these narrative jolts do not matter, instead they serve to accentuate the liquid flow of words from Pegge's point-of-view. Pegge's passions and values are real and to be admired, Donne's evasiveness and Anne's sacrifice (on the triple altar of Donne's political career, his religious feelings, and his passion) are not to be aspired to, it is their early heritage and her father's poetry that Pegge cherishes.
So does the flavour of metaphysical poetry translate to the novel? I think this the most successful aspect of an otherwise excellent work:
On the hard benches in Paul's choir, the children mastered the art of daydreaming, of aping the role of listeners. They lounged about in their minds while their bodies knelt, skewered by their father's roving gaze. The boys looked into the crumbling vault and took aim at pigeons with imaginary cross bows. The girls dreamt of amassing dowries to free themselves from their father's sway.
But Pegge listened. She could hear the bodies decomposing under her feet in the privacy of tombs. Her hearing was acute, able to pick out threads of silence, like the sub-human sounds of worms extruding casts or like the silent descenders in a printer's font.
Throughout Conceit the metaphysical motifs are there, delicately so, in every aspect of the book: the concepts of heaven and hell, "The greater Heaven in an Heaven less" or "Things greater are in less contain'd", human passion, the perfection of the deity in the natural world, ideas of landscape and exploration, the unlikely muse of worm or flea, and most of all there is a delight in language, in paradox, in metaphor, in conceit.
I think Novik's combination of fluid prose, warm characterisation and sweet literary word play are extremely successful. It is not a book that is plot driven, we simply watch Pegge come to terms with her own character. I love Novik's John Donne and I love her London. I hated coming to the end and I know it will become a regular re-read.
The fabulous Conceit by Mary Novik is going into my top ten books of the last ten years.
Also reviewed by:
The Overdecorated Bookcase : "Novik's novel ... snaps the very bones of expectation"
As I mentioned previously Conceit is not currently published in the UK. Unbelievably. I have a signed, first edition hardback of the Canadian publication to give away to a UK blogger. (Sorry non-UK readers I try to offer worldwide draws but I'd like this book to get a chance on another UK blog). If you would like to enter, you're are usually resident in the UK and you have a book blog please just leave message in the comments section saying that you want to enter, before midnight UK time on Wednesday 11th May. I'll do the draw and announce the winner the following day. Please leave a link to your blog too unless you know I know you have a blog.
How to buy a copy of Conceit if you're not in Canada:
So how do you get a copy? Well there are a few secondhand on Biblio and of course you can get it from Amazon.ca. The link for that is over in the right hand column fully emblazoned with all the Amazon regalia to remind you you are buying in Canadian dollars and will incur international shipping charges (unless you're Canadian of course).