"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.
About the author
- Winner, BC Book Prize's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
- Nominated, Scotiabank Giller Prize
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 new Canadian books" of 2008 by AbeBooks.
Mary Novik was raised in a large family in Victoria, British Columbia and has been passionate about books all her life. She was inspired to write Conceit when she was visiting St. Paul's Cathedral in London and discovered that John Donne's effigy was the only monument that survived the Great Fire of 1666. That night, Mary had a dream in which his daughter Pegge braved the holocaust to rescue her father's statue. Why? From that one question, Conceit began to unfold.
Mary lives in Vancouver, where she is writing a novel set in 14th-century Avignon. Please visit Mary’s website at marynovik.com for more information.
Excerpt: Conceit (by (author) Mary Novik)
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.
"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."
"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