Forget your high-school textbook anthologies!
Mary Novik’s Conceit is nothing like that!
Hers is a brilliant and complex work featuring a sparkling cast of characters who step off the page as breathing – yea, sometimes panting.
A flawed, and sometimes tormented panoply of human beings.
Donne, whose literary fame rests on both his theological meditations and poetry and his earlier sensuous Cavalier lyrics both to Ann More and to his reputed mistresses (pre-Ann) forms the cog of the wheel of this narrative.
This poet’s extremes, as any student of 17th century English literary study knows, is the core of the Donne dichotomy.
For to say you like John Donne is to be met with the question: Which Donne? The Cavalier – who loved all he touched, or the enigmatic, untouchable Priest, whose writing reflected a man grappling with Puritan concepts of the evils of the flesh and a preoccupation with the subject of death?
Who was this man, so passionate in his love for Ann More that he risked everything to make her his wife only to later occupy high moral ground of the Anglican pulpit where - in sanctimonious tones - he decried his own sinful passion and her “voluptuous spirit”?
Was this pious priest the same lover who, thrown into jail for his union with her, wrote despairingly (and characteristically wittily) to her from prison the now famous phrase “John Donne. Ann Donne. Undone.”
The question not only of Love’s secret but also the poet’s identity is at the center of this page turner of a novel; and if that were Novik’s only focus, it would be question enough, indeed, to explore.
But – in something of a conceit itself, alongside Donne’s life story, deepening and complicating the answer to the riddle, is Novik’s largely fanciful story of Donne’s youngest daughter, Pegge and her own quest for love. A quest that would seem to drive her toward madness of the kind found in the pages of gothic fiction.
Novik leans Pegge’s longing and incisive memory narrative against the narrative voices of Donne (who wanders through the past and looks to the future as he waits to die and rise to a purified state), and Ann, whose haunting voice escapes from the grave to harry both John and Pegge to tell her story – the real story of the “undone” lovers. It is a request that Pegge seems to hear and to take on as her challenge.
Though there is ample bawdy here as Novik takes us in rich description to the beds of the book’s lovers, Conceit is no mere Harlequin romance telling in titillating tones the story of the famous and erotically charged lovelife of Ann More and John Donne. A rich display of creative nonfiction, the book rambles leisurely into Novik’s impressions (meticulously researched) of an historical London and its tapestries of plague, medicine (maggots, poultices of dead pigeons, etc.), fashion, politics, and personalities.
Novik, who said that she got the idea for the novel while wondering what Donne’s children would think of the steamy letters and poems that he had written to his wife, notes that Donne “wrote love poems like a priest and holy poems like a lover.” Not exactly the kind of stuff you’d leave as legacy to your offspring.
But legacy it becomes for Pegge, whose intelligent, independent voice relays much of the story, mingling her unflagging desire to find a love commensurate with her parents’ all consuming passion with her own apparent failure to find a mate suitable to her desires. Pegge’s early obsession with Izaak Walton, her father’s biographer, forms an intriguing subnarrative enhancing the book’s primary motifs.
Wanting to be remembered as a holy [and wholly] passionless man, after Ann dies in childbirth (their 12th), Donne denies the reality of the love they had shared…a love that had once compelled him to write of being buried with his love, entwined in an eternal embrace, as well as such heart-searing and ardent verse as “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.”
Donne has not completely succumbed to the sacrosanct, however: we overhear the dying Donne privately recollect his youth and admit in straightforward interior monologues to Ann that he would “rather be owner of you one hour than all else ever.” It is a desire that the pious Donne would like to destroy, but one that bespeaks the kind of absolute passion that daughter Pegge wants to find for her own life.
As Pegge follows her quest to discover "What is love?" – a question put to her ill and dying father in a most remarkable scene - Pegge, craving the kind of passion for which she knows (by reading Donne’s poems to her mother) that her father and mother shared, ultimately becomes something of her mother’s defender, a role that she sees as necessary largely because of Izaak Walton, whose Life of Donne seems to be an attempt to “sanctify” her father, erasing all his fleshly yearnings.
It is her insistence on seeing to it that both her father’s lust and his longing for spiritual purity are represented in Walton’s book that takes the book to its ending – and neatly (but not too neatly) wraps up Pegge’s search.
Novik, though she draws her major characters completely, does not weaken on the minor roles either: emerging in full-fledged array are Izaak Walton – whose Compleat Angler forms a backdrop for passages on fish and fishing unlike any I have ever read– and the irrepressible Samuel Pepys, from whose Diary Novik draws to portray yet another (moving) look at how a marriage contends with the effects of unbridled passion – this time for someone other than one’s spouse – a theme that, when closely examined, intensifies the book’s central theme of passion vs. a less flesh-dependent love.
Opening the book with a vivid portrait of the Great Fire of London, a scene that is probably drawn from Pepys’ account, Novik frames the narrative here: opening and closing with Pegge’s rescue of her father’s effigy from the inner sanctum of St. Paul’s Cathedral. (Having more than a little fun with her historical perspective, Novik has even seen to have Christopher Wren make a timely cameo appearance.)
As close to being creative memoir with historical grounding as a novel can be, Novik’s narrative in itself forms a kind of conceit as it offers both implied and overt comparisons between Donne’s love in his youth and age and those of his daughter Pegge.
The conceit – an elaborate and ingenious analogy - was the literary device for which Donne is known. Donne’s brilliant use of this literary device runs smoothly through the book as Novik pulls in a radiant array of lines from his work. Novik’s novel is scattered with lines from Donne’s work, sometimes surreptitiously placed, sometimes quoted in full. They only add more richness to a book already rich in descriptive, sensuous prose describing domestic activities, city life in London in the seventeenth century and natural settings.
As with any complex work of literature, it is impossible to fit Conceit into any kind of neat slot. It is fiction, it is biography, it is history.
But mostly it is a story of the conflicts found within us all – the longing for ….the higher and yet the yoked to physical and earthly pleasures.
No pretty little romantic story, Conceit can be a disquieting read on many levels, not the least being that – not to give too much away - Novik hints in several instances of what most would view as an unnatural, unhealthy love.
But it is the language and the questions it asks that ultimately may leave the reader with his [or her] own obsession – to read more of the poetry of Donne.
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