Conceit tells the story of Pegge, daughter of the seventeenth century poet, John Donne. The common sense of conceit is excessive pride; of that, so this telling goes, Donne was not innocent. But Donne the poet is historically known for his use of the literary conceit, the juxtaposition of unlike things to surprise and reveal. He used a open compass to depict parted lovers still joined at the soul. The story is about partedness, both parted love and duplicity, and eventual consummation.
The elderly Dr. Donne is dying, or so he hopes. The great love of his life, his wife Ann, is long dead. He is now Dean of St. Paul’s cathedral, eager to take his seat with the saints. He has already preached his funeral sermon and commissioned his effigy. But he lingers; “I am not alive, but God will not kill me”.
Donne is prudish and vain, but cares genuinely for the welfare of his children. Of all his children, only Pegge shows the spirit of a poet. It does not suit her for marriage or for the writing of Donne’s memoir. Instead, a credulous Izaak Walton is employed to handle Donne’s notes. Walton is a beautiful young man, the object of Pegge’s desire. A secret meeting has Pegge removing her scarlet bodice to help snare a massive carp that Walton cannot quite manage. The extended overlay of fishing for mirror carp with love-making might have gone badly in the hands of a lesser writer, but Novik delivers it deliciously.
Pegge’s family awaits her first period so she can be married off, while Pegge’s tears for her “childish, reluctant womb” quicken the ghost of Ann. Ann becomes narrator, telling how the young Donne persuaded her to risk her father’s wrath and poverty by marrying him. He loved her sincerely. He promised they would lie together in life and death, even had it carved on her gravestone. But now he plans to be buried with the deans in St. Paul’s and not with her. He will not be able to abandon his vow so easily. “At the exact moment that your soul springs from your body, I will be there to trap it with a long, devouring kiss.” Donne’s dying dreams send him ravishing Ann’s ashes.
Donne dies at last. Ann and God are there, and while the claim on his soul seems decided, the most fervent part of the story is still to be told. Until now, Pegge’s life seemed overshadowed by her parents. While they knew great love and contended with God, Pegge appeared as a little girl with a crush. During her father’s life, she failed to wrest answers about love from him. In death, he still dominates her life. She marries the man Donne chose, or nearly so. William Bowles is a kind and true husband, but he does not understand the possession that takes hold of Pegge, summoning the writer in her to reveal Donne the man, freeing him from lies and sainthood. “How hard it is to have a wife who loves the smell of ink and paper!” The great fire of England that began the story ends it too, with Pegge deciding Donne’s ultimate fate.
The story is a sensual one, shaped by Donne’s poetry. It is an extended love poem with language, characters and feelings the reader will want to savour one page at a time. How this one could have slipped the Giller shortlist I do not know.
See also: Website of Mary Novik