Sunday, September 26, 2010

What's Donne is done

Over the past two weeks, I've finished not one but two historical novels centering on the love affair between metaphysical poet John Donne and Ann More, the teenage noblewoman whom he married secretly and against her family's wishes.  Both are well worth reading, rich in period detail and channeling the spirit of Donne's works throughout the text, but they're quite different in terms of style.  I purchased them separately, about a year ago, one from a UK bookstore and the other on a trip to Canada.

Maeve Haran's The Lady and the Poet takes a more traditional approach to the story, though I don't mean to denigrate it in any way by that.  Ann More, a well-educated young woman of fourteen, first meets Donne when she travels from her father's home at Loseley Park in Surrey to the London house of her uncle, Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. Repelled by the sycophantic behavior and hypocrisy at court, Ann has zero interest in taking a position as one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies.  This angers her family, who were hoping to get some mileage out of her closeness to the Queen.  Despite the scandalous rumors that surround him, Ann grows steadily more intrigued by her uncle's handsome secretary, John Donne, both a known libertine and a supposedly reformed Catholic.  Their courtship progresses via secret meetings, penned exchanges, and lengthy separations which make their hearts grow fonder.   

Despite the unabashedly romantic focus, The Lady and the Poet is saved from sentimentality by Ann's assured narrative voice.  Because she and Donne are so often apart, Ann's uncertainty about the character of the man with whom she's fallen in love comes through clearly.  She, like the reader, gets to know him through his poems, which are in turn bawdy and deeply heartfelt.  Haran takes the tack that some of his erotic poetry was directed toward other mistresses with whom he was involved before he met Ann, while his love poems such as "The Good Morrow" (quoted at the beginning) were more obviously inspired by her.

Full of details about late Elizabethan country and city life, the novel unfolds in lively fashion.  While Ann's and Donne's marriage is recorded history, Haran fills in the whys and hows with reasonable supposition (which includes a suitor for Ann who proves unworthy; no big loss there).  The language is overlaid with a slight archaic feel, and the result made me feel like I was indeed breathing the air of another time.  I turned the pages compulsively but not too quickly — it's not that sort of read — and I also found it amusing that it took a novel set away from Tudor court life to reinvigorate my interest in the Elizabethan era.  In that respect, I found in Ann a kindred spirit!

Haran ends her book with Ann and Donne beginning their new life together, having triumphed over society's obstacles and her family's objections, of which there were many.  Donne endured a short stay in the Fleet Prison for her sake, while their marriage was still unproved, and he also lost his position in her uncle's household; Ann lost her father's favor, and the couple wasn't granted her dowry for several years afterward. But there's more to the couple's story, of course, than a tidy epilogue can provide.

Mary Novik's Conceit looks deeper into the relationship between the two, tracing it from its earliest stages through Ann's early death and beyond, examining how the legacy of their celebrated passion impacted the life of their daughter, Margaret, known familiarly as Pegge.  (This is a fictional interpretation, as little is known of the real-life Ann or her daughter.)  It unites the earthy bawdiness of John Donne's earlier poems, and that of mid-17th century London itself, with the solemnity and holiness found in his later works, mingling the sacred and the profane just as Donne himself did. The word "conceit," in a literary sense, refers to a juxtaposition of dissimilar concepts, and Novik makes creative use of the term, conjuring up many vivid and memorable images that take the breath away. One wouldn't expect a fishing expedition on the Thames to be an especially sensual experience, for instance, but the novel makes it so.

The novel opens with the Great Fire of 1666, as Pegge, a middle-aged wife and mother of eight (twelve if you count those who died, as she does), struggles to rescue her father's effigy from St. Paul's Cathedral before it burns.  The timeframe then reverts to her childhood and adolescence.  Pegge wants nothing more than to experience for herself the passion that consumed her parents in their youth, but she finds it not.  Izaak Walton, the young fisherman she adores, is in love with her older sister.  Even her father's love for his late wife, Ann, who died giving birth to her twelfth child in 1617, has muted over time.  John Donne's focus turned toward the religious as he grew older, and although he'd once promised his beloved Ann that their bodies would rest together in one grave, he's since changed his mind and now asks to be buried at St. Paul's among his fellow clerics.  Pegge comes close to losing herself in her pursuit of the secret of desire, as she cares for her dying father, pores over his writings, and sets down words of her own.

Conceit gathers new content from many corners, alternating among the viewpoints of Pegge, John, and even Ann, both in her headstrong youth and as she lies alone in her dingy grave. It's both thoughtful and thought-provoking as it explores the intimate connections between love and death as well as between people, in romantic relationships and within families.  The writing is simply stunning (it's no wonder it made it onto many literary prize lists), and it also made me feel well situated in the heart of 17th-century London: its houses, streets, bookshops, taverns, cathedrals, and even burial grounds, all of the places where the majority of its people lived, interacted, and still remain.

Maeve Haran's The Lady and the Poet was published in 2009 by Pan (UK) at £6.99 and by St. Martin's (UK) in 2010 at $25.99.  I bought the UK version, with its rich red cover, before I knew the US edition would appear (heavy discount alert on this one at Amazon).  Mary Novik's Conceit appeared in 2007 from Doubleday Canada at $29.95 Canadian; the paperback is out at $21.00 (both discounted at Amazon Canada).


  1. These both sound great. Excellent reviews. Thanks for sharing! I'm going to go see how I can get my hands on them now!

  2. I LOVED The Lady and the Poet :) Did not realize Conceit told the same story from a different perspective...will have to add it to my long list of books TBR!

    Great reviews!!!!

  3. Great review! And thanks for the notice on that deep discount. I found a seller on Amazon for Conceit, too, and I was able to snag both books for less than $6.00.

  4. I just bought Conceit on Amazon, too! It sounds fabulous!

    Thanks for the great review -

    Historical Fiction Notebook

  5. Thank you, all! Tess, you'll probably find Conceit easier to obtain than most :) Unfortunately it's not published outside Canada, since it deserves a wider audience. Glad to hear it was available via the US Amazon, too.

  6. Sarah - yep, we have it in our library...Just saw another great book today by Richard B. Wright - Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard...You've probably already seen it, though *g*.

  7. Cool :)

    And yep -- after reading the review in the Globe & Mail last week, I went and ordered the new Wright from, but because I preordered a few other books at the same time (to save postage $) I won't get it for a few months. But I have plenty to read in the meantime! I loved Clara Callan...

  8. Sounds interesting I'm putting both books on my list. Thanks :) Victoria D

  9. Anonymous1:39 PM

    These books both sound lovely, books that challenge the norm of the time are my favourite. I look forward to reading these. The review is also very well written. Thanks!