Guest Post by Mary Novik
My novel Conceit, which is set in 17th-century London, is about the family of the poet John Donne. In writing it, I drew mainly on primary sources. I was happiest when I found eye-witnesses, for instance Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, who wrote about the Great Fire of 1666 in their diaries, which I consulted for the prologue. As well as the fishing manual The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton, a minor character in my novel, wrote the first biography of John Donne, which was full of half-truths and editorializing.
Donne’s own works were invaluable, for instance the sermon he preached just before he died, “Death’s Duel”. During an earlier illness, he wrote Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, in which he penned his most famous words, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. . . . never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” This book was a great source of information about spiritual belief and 17th-century medical practice, such as putting dead pigeons on the patient’s feet to “draw the vapors from the head”.
By far the most useful source for Conceit was Donne’s love poetry. We don’t know the chronology, or which women he wrote them to, but we like to think that the most sincere love poems were written to Ann More, who became his wife. Ann, and her daughter Pegge, are known to history only through church records (births, marriages, deaths) and letters written by male relatives, but piecing the poems together into a chronological story gave me insight into John and Ann’s extraordinary love–the fictional narrative that is at the heart of Conceit.
Mary Novik’s novel Conceit won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was chosen by AbeBooks as on of the “top ten hottest new Canadian books of 2008”. She is now writing a novel set in 14th-century Avignon. Her website is www.marynovik.com
(1) Latham, Robert and William Matthews, eds. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 12 volumes. London: HarperCollins, 1995.
(2) Bray, William, ed. The Diary of John Evelyn. 2 volumes. London: J.M. Dent, 1907.
(3) Donne, John. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel. New York: Vintage, 1999. This volume also includes “The Life of Dr John Donne” by Izaak Walton.
(4) Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. Ed. A.J. Smith. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1971.