Conceit by Mary NovikConceit by Mary Novik


byMary Novik

Paperback | July 29, 2008

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"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.
Called "a magnificent novel of seventeenth-century London" by The Globe and Mail, Conceit has been warmly received by book clubs and was chosen as a Book of the Year by both Quill & Quire and The Globe and Mail. It was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller, won The Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and was called one of the "top ten hottest ...
Title:ConceitFormat:PaperbackDimensions:416 pages, 8.28 × 5.19 × 1.18 inPublished:July 29, 2008Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385662068

ISBN - 13:9780385662062

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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Conceit by Mary Novik is Historical Fiction at its Finest! CONCEIT By Mary Novik 4 stars Vancouver author Mary Novik’s ( debut novel, Conceit (awarded a Globe and Mail Best Book stamp of approval), is an ambitious, elegant and visceral story of the life and loves of Margaret More Donne, a.k.a. Pegge, daughter of the famous 17th century poet, John Donne (whom I first heard about in Van Morrison’s song, “Rave On, John Donne”). It is also the tale of the great love affair between Ann More - a descendant of Sir Thomas More – and John Donne, who after her death, became an Anglican priest and the Dean of St. Paul’s Church in London. I read a few chapters before I became thoroughly engaged by Novik’s own poetic prose (I must confess that I’m not enamoured by the sport of angling nor of fish in general, although Pegge’s recipe for cooked pike made me pause) as well as by the thoughts and feelings of the rebellious young Pegge. Set largely in the London of Elizabeth I, Novik weaves her descriptive, subtly erotic tale using the first person voices of several characters including Pegge, her dead mother Ann and John Donne himself. It wasn’t until part three, “Death’s Duel”, that I was truly hooked on the story and wanted to know if Pegge ever got to consummate her love for Izaak Walton, although (up until that point) I couldn’t understand why she was so attracted to him. Because Novik switches the voices of the main characters and time periods without warning from chapter to chapter, you can get confused about where you’re at if you put the book down for too long. However, this impressive piece of literature is well worth the effort and by the end we discover that the Pegge we thought we knew; who was quite possibly going mad as a result of her obsession with her late father; was someone who was, in fact, incredibly clever and full of guile. One of my favourite passages came in the very last paragraph of the book: “Come, William, I see Venus rising like a pink nipple on the plump horizon. Shall we make that clock of yours run faster? Let us bed down together in this new dawn and weave a silken tent of arms. Such feats are not reserved for extraordinary lovers, and my love for you has grown over the years to marvellous proportions. Let us die together in the act of love, so death cannot divorce us. When our grave is broken open, our souls shall take flight together, assuming limbs of flesh, and lips, ears, loins, and brows. But first let us speed darkening time and savour this long night of love.” Did you sigh when you read that? I did, and if you love historical fiction (I’m envisioning the movie version!), this captivating book will make you sigh deeply too. Just in case you have forgotten, Mary Novik’s Conceit will remind you of the soul-expanding sensation that is true passion. Discover Mary’s inspiration for Conceit here:
Date published: 2009-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from "Old St Paul's" re-animated Mary Novik breathes new life into the dust that lies beneath "Old St. Paul's". Like Izaak Walton and Dr. Samuel Johnson before her, she explores the life - and death - of John Donne, that curious clergyman whose effigy still stands wrapped in his shroud, even though the church that once contained it was long ago made ashes. Her book joins the ranks of those select few authors - Peter Ackroyd, for one - whose books convey an abiding love of London, and what lies beneath.
Date published: 2009-02-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Conceit by Mary Novik Conceit (Merriam-Webster) 1 a (1): a result of mental activity: thought (2): individual opinion b: favorable opinion ; especially : excessive appreciation of one's own worth or virtue 2: a fancy item or trifle 3 a: a fanciful idea b: an elaborate or strained metaphor c: use or presence of such conceits in poetry d: an organizing theme or concept I’m an enthusiastic historical fiction fan and I especially like medieval fiction, maybe because it is not as popular as other periods, and I’m always looking for unique concepts. I’d been to the bookstore numerous times indecisive whether to buy Conceit and I finally gave in because the great cover captivated me. The story is about the famed love John Donne has for his wife Ann, their children and in particular John’s daughter Pegge and her life. On a broader level it is about the many facets of love and death set in the 17th century. I really really wanted to like this book but I just could not warm to it. Normally I read a book within a week no matter how many pages but Conceit took just under two! The first 75 pages were plodding and confusing…and then I figured out the general direction of the plot and reading became smoother. Conceit was engrossing in a way, that of being a voyeur to disturbing behavior and unable to look away, as if spellbound with witchery. I didn’t mind the gore or rude language (Novik seems to detail every imaginable bodily function and irritating humor of the period), the complex, rambling ideas, and skipping back and forth through time, rather I detested all the characters. The characters were for the most part brash, uncouth, self-involved, superstitious and unlikable. To be blunt I finished the book then threw it across the room. What I have realized about myself is that I need to like the characters to enjoy the story. But Conceit IS a masterful, authentic debut by Mary Novik and I would recommend it to those who prefer challenging, unique fiction. As an aside, there were a lot of foreign words I did not know the meaning of and didn’t bother to look up…I would have a dictionary with you reading this book.
Date published: 2009-02-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from "It was treason to give away something that belonged to me." CONCEIT by Mary Novik is a rather naughty tale filled with vivid wit and imagery about love and love lost. It is set in seventeenth century London and the author draws freely from historical remnants of the period, creating a lovely tapestry about one of the more notorious personalities of the day: John Donne. The historic figure is a poet, preacher, and parliamentarian (please forgive the alliteration). In Novik’s portrait the youthful Donne becomes a creature of tremendous gaiety and warmth who in his later years veritably abandons his more charitable nature for a life devoted to the church. Despite the centrality of this towering figure the novel is really about the thoughts and longings of the women in his life, his wife Ann More and daughter Pegge. The novels begins somewhat opaquely in 1666, the great London fire. We meet Pegge who is hurrying down the river. What we know about Pegge is that “Fish make her think of love” (7) and that she’s hell-bent on rescuing her father’s effigy from the consuming fire. At the time John Donne has been dead some thirty years. From the fire we go back to 1622 and are properly introduced: Pegge is learning French and Latin from a tutor. The novel itself is narrated through the lives of several characters, most of them living, one dead, and one betwixt and between. This oscillation of perspectives reaches out like an epic without the Herculean effort or volume. The prose is beautiful and easy to read. “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…” (25). And how can one not be pleased to read this gem: “Musing over how pleasant it would be to tocar her mamelles so as to make himself espender, he crawls back into his solitary bed” (4). Later, it is equally delightful to discover why fish make Pegge think of love. Each voice in the novel is independent from the rest. In reading through the novel one is struck by a peculiar quality of reflection: each character seems to be silently and secretly asking questions of the other, making demands, fashioning different outcomes, ascertaining what is and is not the case. In many ways this is a literary attempt to create a record of private life and it is in my view one of the great elements of Novik’s novel, the conveyance of a scintillating internal world as it comes to be constituted externally from one generation to the next. All in all, this is a versatile novel about passion, anguish, seduction, bitterness, curiosity, pregnancy, and lonliness. Enjoy! * * * “A conversation between lovers should never end. My amorous soul lives for its outings, my visitations upon your body. What once was pleasure has become addiction” (229).
Date published: 2009-01-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Titillating Tale! Conceit by Mary Novik was an absorbing novel, set in 17th Century England, about Pegge Donne, the daughter of poet John Donne. I was immediately drawn into the story by the use of exciting, captivating plot twists. The story jumped back and forth between different characters and their lives, which kept me involved. The writing itself was very beautiful, almost poetic, and had a pleasing fluidity. Conceit had a lingering sensuality that stayed with me page after page. I was impressed by the fluid transition from scenes of death or illness to scenes of affection and eroticism. This novel isn’t for the faint of heart or the squeamish. The vivid descriptions of various illnesses and treatments that befell the characters had me mentally cringing, but I was greatly pleased that unpleasant events weren’t skimmed over or glamorized. I thoroughly enjoyed the convincing, well researched atmosphere that the historical detail of Conceit presented. I often felt as if I was silently observing the events described from the corner of the room that they were happening in. The main character, Pegge Donne, was a free-spirit. I loved how Novik portrayed her as an independent woman who valued love, intelligence, and family, and wasn’t afraid to be an eccentric or nonconformist. I would recommend this book for fans of historical fiction, particularly English history. It’s a bit of a heavy read, but very worthwhile.
Date published: 2008-12-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from this is a Gem Writing the novel must have been a very challenging and rewarding process for Mary Novik. She has successfully presented a rich old fashion story, centered on the life of Pegge Donne, daughter of love poet John Donne. The principal players: John Donne, his wife Anne More and their daughter Pegge relate alternately their life experiences. Opening with a spectacular scene in London during the fury of the Great fire, you are immediately plunged into the world of passion, but not ordinary passion, one of erotic love, familial love and platonic love. “Conceit” is actually an ensemble of love stories set in the seventeenth century. In those days, marriages were arranged; custom dictated that fathers find a husband for their daughters. Pegge went against the currant and wanted a romantic kind of love, the type her parents had and her father wrote about in his love poetry. She is definitely not portrayed as the typical woman of the time; she is far too clever and complex. She pushes the boundaries of her behaviour and seeks the secret of love from various people, including her own father. Although the novel is primarily a fictional account in the life of Pegge and her parents we also have a glimpse into the love-relationship of other marriages such as Izaak Walton and Samuel Pepys, important people of the time. Having limited knowledge and not a big fan of poetry, I may seem bias in my assessment. I found it dragged and I had a problem focusing and adjusting especially when Ms Novik shifted the narrative back and forth between characters, loosing me at times affecting momentum and my interest in the story. I was nevertheless glad to have read and been introduced into a world I normally would not have visited. Would I recommend it, positively without any doubt? Through her poetic and luscious prose Ms Novick delivered a gem of a novel, any lover of poetry I am sure would favour.
Date published: 2008-12-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Engrossing and written beautifully Conceit by Mary Novik started off in an odd way, during the present, going from person to person; and seemed uninteresting at first, until I passed the first twenty pages. After that, the story did live up to its expectations. The story takes place in the 1600s, in London, at a time when women were to follow conventions. Mary Novik presents us with Margaret/Pegge Donne, who refuses to follow conventions and is engrossed with love, her father’s poetry, and the legendary love that her parents shared. I have no doubts that a lot of research was required to put this novel together, since it takes place in the past, thus has to witness true events. The ending is satisfying, and the story is interesting and unpredictable, since I never knew what to expect next. The story is mainly told in third person, revolving around Pegge and sometimes William Bowles. I enjoyed the fact that a few chapters were told in first person, through the perspective of Pegge’s father, John Donne, and her deceased mother, Ann Donne. This way, I learned the engaging past of both her parents, the past that even Pegge is unaware of. London is ablaze, and with the inaction of the mayor, the fire cannot stop naturally. Pegge William Bowles, goes to St Paul’s cathedral to rescue her deceased father, John Donne’s effigy. Her husband, William Bowles, waits in a barge for Pegge, whom he sees bringing along Izaak Walton. However, he cannot say anything to Pegge about the situation, because he owes her too much. That is were the story begins, by going back into the past to explain what exactly happened to make William feel this way. The paperback version of Conceit is beautiful, with rough-cut pages and a front and back flap. I enjoyed the fact that story revolved around historical figures, thus I learned of the existence of John Donne, and am now eager to read his poetry. I only wish that the map of London in the 1600s was included, so I could better visualize the locations. Inspired by her visit to St. Paul's Cathedral in London, and having taken seven years to complete, Conceit by Mary Novik will not be a disappointing read. 3.5/5
Date published: 2008-11-15

Read from the Book

The City–1666 It is the second of September, a Sunday, at one o’clock in the ­morning.Samuel Pepys is making his way home from the Three Cranes, where he drank too much mulled sack and sang himself hoarse. He feels an odd sensation and pushes away a mongrel sniffing at his breeches. To walk well with a sword requires a certain amount of swagger and forward thrust, but he is weaving back and forth, focusing only two steps ahead. As he passes through Pudding lane, he takes little notice of the unusual glow inside the bakery. He is concentrating on sobering up so he can go straight in to his wife if she calls out. When she cannot sleep, Elizabeth likes to read to him or play at cards, and he counts it the most pleasant hour of his day. In his pocket is a new comedy that has been banging against his thigh all night. He will produce the book to divert her, if she is ­willing.The baker, Thomas Farrinor, set out his dough to rise and dampened the coals in his oven before going to bed, but forgot to latch the window. When the wind came up early from the northeast, it stirred the embers and carried a spark into the Star Inn in Fishstreete. Fuelled by the straw in the ­stable-­yard, the fire has now doubled back and is menacing Farrinor’s own bedchamber. At two o’clock, he is awakened by the smell of baking dough and is greeted by an unusually red dawn and an unseasonable heat. Farrinor scrambles out onto the rooftop for safety. The houses are pitched so close together at the top that he can leap over the narrow street onto his neighbour’s ­roof.And so he does, for the fire is right behind ­him.Told that his wife is unwell, Pepys is sleeping in his great chamber ­below-­stairs. At three o’clock, his maid shakes him, urging him to come to her bedchamber. She leads him up the narrow staircase to her window to point out a fire burning to the west, not far from London ­bridge.In the amber light, his maid’s breasts appear to beckon, and he codes his thoughts in the lingua franca he has picked up from sailors. Her candle tilts towards his nightshirt, more of a threat than the fire, which the wind is driving towards the river. Musing over how pleasant it would be to tocar her mamelles so as to make himself espender, he crawls back into his solitary bed. He snuffs out his candle, lies down, sits up to check that the wick is truly out, and falls, by an erotic meandering or two, into a deep and satisfying ­sleep.At seven, his maid wakes him again, telling him that three hundred houses have been destroyed in the night. He walks to the Tower and climbs up for a better look. From there Pepys sees that the fire has burnt all down Fishstreete to the bridge, and as far as the Steelyard to the west. However, the wind has now turned and is driving the blaze straight into the City. Even the stones of St Magnus’s ­church–­or so it seems in this red ­light–­are burning after the long summer ­drought.Pepys takes a boat along the river to view the extent of the fire, getting out at Whitehall and up into the King’s closet as quickly as he can. Attracting a crowd, he is called to the King to give his account first hand. He warns the King and the Duke of York that unless houses are pulled down in its path, the fire will stop at nothing. Asked by the King to find the mayor and give him this advice, Pepys takes a coach as far as Ludgate, then is forced to get out and continue on ­foot.On Ludgate hill, he finds St Paul’s cathedral being turned into a storehouse. The mercers are piling up their ­yard-­goods in the nave, and the booksellers are carting their books down the ­twenty-­six steps into their parish church in St Paul’s crypt, where they will be doubly safe beneath the marble flagstones. Whole bookstores are being stacked in ­St-­Faith’s-­under-­Paul’s and small boys have been put to work stopping up the crevices in the walls with rags. A bookseller bumps his cart through the churchyard past Pepys, who picks up an octavo that has landed ­face-­down in the grime. In this turmoil, no one cares about a single book, so he pockets it and walks east along Watling ­street.Overtaking Mayor Bludworth in Canning street at noon, Pepys advises him to knock down the buildings ahead of the fire. If this is done, Pepys says, there is still hope of stopping the destruction at the Three Cranes above and at Botolph’s below the bridge. However, Bludworth has been up all night and is now spent. He rejects the Duke of York’s offer of soldiers to pull down houses, for the owners are militantly against ­it.The mayor does not think the fire will spread. “A chambermaid could piss it out,” he says, retiring to a tavern for ­refreshment.Pepys calculates the amount of fluid in a chambermaid’s bladder. A pint, he guesses, perhaps a little more, hardly enough to douse a spark. He has been able to hold little urine himself since a ­kidney-­stone was cut out of him eight years before. At the memory, his bladder tightens. He unbuttons and relieves himself against a ­wall.Hearing fluttering, he looks up, and sees that the pigeons above his head are like people, reluctant to leave their roosts until it cannot be put off. The goods that people carried from Thames street up to Canning street that morning are now being removed to Lombard street, where they will most likely need to be shifted again. A cripple fights with an ­able-­bodied man for a cart, and a slight woman bears one child on her front and another on her back. Pepys sees a sick man carried from his house, still in his bed, and the lanes stopped up by handcarts, the citizens more eager to save their goods than quench the fire. There is an exuberance to it all, a clutching of valuables, a crying out against arsonists and foreigners, a kindly touching of sleeves, and a cutting of purse strings when the uproar presents an ­opportunity.Pepys walks on, as near to the fire as he can get for smoke, assessing the damage to the ­City.–Mrs William Bowles is making her way down from her house in Clerkenwell on foot, skirting the Fleet river on its journey south and staying well clear of the fire that is burning along the ­Thames.In spite of its name, this river is far from fleet. It is more of a ditch, at best a backwater, although it has its source in the clear springs and wells of Hampstead. She crosses the Fleet on ­Cow-­bridge, stopping to peer into water so clogged with refuse that even the single oarsman can make little progress upstream. His scull is loaded with his possessions, topped by a wooden lute that is listing towards the river, weeping a few plaintive notes. As the scull passes, Pegge spots a long silvery object flashing just downstream of the straining ­oar.She hurries down the ­river-­stairs and grasps a boatman’s pole lying on the bank. Kneeling down, she steers and coaxes the fish towards her. Clutching it like a hawk, she lifts it free of the floating waste and teeters above the brackish water, fish aloft, heels sinking, until she regains her balance. Something is amiss, for the fish does not struggle to free itself. When she inspects it, she finds that her nails have perforated the skin like serving forks. The pike has been scotched with a knife and grilled on ­wood-­coal, perhaps in a cookshop in Fishstreete where the fire began two days before. She lets it slip back into the lukewarm Fleet and watches it being churned towards the ­Thames.Fish make her think of love. She cannot help herself, though she is aware that other women favour the honey fragrance of the heliotrope or eating sugar by the spoonful. Often she seeks out fishermen along the River Lea just to watch their sleeves shoot up and their muscles tense as they cast out their ­lines.Feeling the heat rising off the water, she tries to judge the height of the sun through the smoky air. Saffron, her husband William would call this light, or ochre, never a simple ­pea-­green or bilious yellow. There is somewhere she is meant to be. Her tongue feels for the spot where a baby tooth has been nestling in her gums for fifty years. The mud on her petticoat has already dried to a treacly brown. She shakes it off and ties up the ribbons on her stockings. Twisting her skirts into a knot, she walks quickly towards the ­Strand.–In a house overlooking St Clement Danes, the ­dancing-­master is nodding out the ­beats.“You are distante, Madame Bowles.” Monsieur de la Valière elongates each syllable with a puff of vinegary breath. “Yet the fire is bien loin. No one suggests it will come here, not even the most dire prognosticateur of your Royal Society. You must reverse like the mirror, my right, your left.”“The air is too close for dancing, Monsieur.”“London has always this brown fog. It stops up the nose and the sensories.” He pinches his nostrils to show her. “Even the perspirations are brown.”Why has she come here on such a day? The damp silk feels cold against her skin, unlike good English wool. The sleeves bind her arms and the fabric bunches against her thighs, as if something is trapped inside the folds. In this garment, she might as well be naked to the eye. Her father once said that draping a woman’s bones with silk was like smearing birdlime on twigs to catch unwary ­songbirds.“Step, dip, turn, repeat, fa fa fa,” he sings out. “En cadence s’il vous plaît.”She cannot seem to please this morning. Even her shoes are unhappy with her feet. She goes to the window, leaving the ­dancing-­master skimming about the floor in lonely minuets. Throwing open the casement, she leans out and lets the wind dishevel her ­hair.There is no cool air to be had, for the easterlies are blowing scarlet heat towards them from the fire, now less than a mile away. At her last lesson, London was spread out along the curving Thames like a game of basset on a dealer’s table, but today she can scarcely make out the City’s steeples. The fire has burnt all along Thames street, and is now engulfing Paul’s Deanery, her childhood home, in threatening grey ­clouds.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.“I must leave, Monsieur. I was wrong to come today.” Wrong even to think of taking lessons, though she does not say that to him. She has done it only to please William, who is learning the new dances at ­court.The ­dancing-­master does something clever with his ankles and arrives at her side, dark calves flashing, his hands outstretched. “La jambe gauche, fa fa fa, la jambe droite.”Waving him away, Pegge surveys the panorama. The smoke has now cleared at Ludgate, affording a glimpse of refugees jostling to get through the narrow opening with their ­handcarts.“Why should you run with the tail between the legs? Your house is well north of the dévastation and, as you see, everything goes on like habit in Westminster.”“Not everyone sleeps easily here.” Pegge gestures to St Clement’s below, with its parched brown garden. “My mother lies buried in that church, but I do not think her spirit has ever rested.”“Ah, that is why I felt two women in my arms just now, the ­light-­footed one and the one who crushes on men’s toes. She dances in her grave, to be sure, but you have lead weights on your hem, pulling you down when you should fly up, up”–he rises on his toes, illustrating with fluttering palms–“into a lover’s arms.” Then he slumps down and stares at her. “Are you the fowl or the fish? You have a feather in the hairs, but the complexion–”He presses close, reeking of soured wine. She would much rather breathe the rank heat of a riverbank. “I must go at once, Monsieur.” Brushing off his hands, Pegge flees, her shoes clattering into the winding stairwell and down the three steep flights of ­stairs.“Go if you must, run, trip, fall down,” he calls out after her, “be like the rustic if you will, but if you dare to come back to de la Valière after such grossièreté, wear the little slippers not those . . . shoes of the farmer!”Emerging into the churchyard, she looks up at Monsieur bobbing at the high window, still performing his foreign movements. Then his head, with its tight curls, ducks out of ­sight.Soon he is back, leaning over the sill, his arm spiralling. “You have left a thing, Madame. I do not care for the English ­love-­token.”Her old shawl flies out the window, hovers like gossamer, then shrinks into a heavy ball of wool and drops at her feet, molasses brown. Everything in the churchyard is the same ­burnt-­sugar colour from the hot summer. The old honeysuckle has been uprooted and the bower turned into a tavern by apprentices. It stinks of piss and ale and rotting flesh. She kneels to touch a small corpse beside a broken ­ale-­cask. On her last visit, this crow with the one white feather knocked down a wasp’s nest, then stood on it while rooting out grubs with its beak. When she approached, it tried to chase her off by mimicking the sexton’s irate voice. Now she feels the last few beats of its heart. Its feathers come out without pulling, staining her palms with greasy soot. Apparently it has been on a misguided foray to the east. Suffocated by the burning air, it has flown back to her mother’s church to ­die.From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. Why does Pegge risk her life to rescue her father’s effigy from St. Paul's during the London fire of 1666?2. Pegge is bright, quick-witted and independent yet chooses to lavish her attentions on Izaak Walton – a man she sometimes calls "idle" and "oafish." Why does Pegge choose Walton as the object of her affections?3. What does the delayed arrival of Pegge’s "fleurs" herald? How does Pegge's emotional turmoil during menstruation affect her perceptions of everyone around her – sisters, father, Walton, even her dead mother?4. Why does Pegge so fervently covet her time with her father, particularly when he is dying? Why does she protect those moments so vigorously from her sister and Walton? Why does she run away from the Deanery after her father's death and roam the streets of London like a vagrant?5. What convinces Pegge to accept William Bowles as her husband?6. As well as portraying John and Ann's marriage, and Pegge and William’s, Conceit also includes glimpses into the marriages of Samuel Pepys and Elizabeth, Walton and his two wives, and Constance and her husbands. Why do you think these relationships are included? Do they suggest an evolution in love-relationships and marriage in the seventeenth century?7. Intertwined with Pegge's unique voice are the voices of her parents, John Donne and Ann More. What are your impressions of Ann and the story she tells? Was she really "slain by love, at far too young an age"? Why does she lie in wait for Donne to die?8. What do you believe is the essence of John and Ann's love? How does Pegge's love for William differ? Do you believe one relationship is a truer expression of love than the other?9. Pegge believes that after becoming a priest, her father decided to "cleanse himself of the taint of having loved." Consider whether or not – and why – Donne believes the love he feels for his wife is a sin.10. When William discovers Pegge's notes in Walton’s biography of Donne, he is intent on deciphering her code. What do you believe Pegge has written between the lines? What was her motivation? What is your reaction to the conversation between William and Pepys about the volume?11. While staying at Clewer after surviving the Great Fire, Walton is surprised by an amorous late night visitor. Walton believes it to be Con. Do you agree?12. What motivates Pegge to return her father's effigy to St. Paul's?13. Does Donne ultimately possess the secrets of love that Pegge seeks? Do you believe these secrets to be knowable? What are your impressions of Pegge's final attempt to pull the secrets from her father? Why does a full revelation of this incident occur only after the Great Fire of 1666?14. Is there a part of the story of Conceit that you can’t leave behind? Is there a character you fell in love with? What is it about the character that appeals to you the most?15. Although Conceit is a fictional account of the lives of John Donne, Ann More, and Pegge Donne – as well as Izaak Walton and Samuel Pepys – reading about the real people might shed light on how the author fictionalizes them. Visit to learn more about the seventeenth-century backgrounds. What did you discover that enriches your reading of Conceit?

Editorial 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