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Through a Glass Darkly
Review by Linda Rogers
Conceit, Mary Novik, Anchor Canada, 2007
The title Mary Novik has chosen for her fictional biography of John Donne’s too clever daughter Pegge is an ideal conceit. If books are windows, this one, layers of transparency, fits the metaphor perfectly in its frame. In the dark mirrors of the metaphysical poet and Dean of St. Paul’s, his deceased wife Ann, the victim of too many conceits, and their daughter, the precocious child narrator, Novik reflects on the life and times of a great man and the effect such men have on their wives and children.
Donne and his family are coloured by their context, under and over painting in which the characters are shadows in the tallow lit rooms of a labyrinthian city. Like Thomas Hardy who made rural Dorset his most human and memorable character, Novik shapes Restoration London into a woman with many sexual alleys. Parts of her reek of cheap perfume, sewage and death; her breath as rotten as the faery queene’s teeth. Others are as fresh as a garden after rain. Novik has created an historical pastiche that is as real as anything written at the time. Like a nurselog rotting in the rainforest, the city feeds her ant population pestilence and hope, the plague of smallpox and the succour of religion.
Novik has not only immersed herself in primary and secondary research, she has entered the mind of a febrile girl who has been triply orphaned, by the intense and exclusive love of her mother and father for one another, by the early death of her mother, and by her gender. As a younger daughter in a large family bereft of a mother protector in the presence of a devouring male ego, there is no room for her great intelligence to flourish and there is no proper channel for her love.
Like many young girls who are seduced by unscrupulous men or lured into the sex trade, Pegge is vulnerable in her loneliness and longing. Lacking the stability of real love, she will love inappropriately. Focusing the intense carnal waft from her parents’ boudoir, she obsesses on her older sister’s rejected suitor, Izaak Walton. Her fishing trip with him is a stunning piece of erotic writing.
Novik, who grew up in a large family, well understands the competitive dynamic of sisters, brothers and parents. The Donne’s are real people, credible as empirical entities and in their psychological development. Sisters were sisters in the Seventeenth Century as they are now and Pegge knew both the comfort and cruelty of girls. Even given the childhood mortality rates, Pegge’s sisters were callous. One sentence is given to the death of a sister and, in reference to Pegge’s bout with smallpox, her widowed sister only expresses joy at her recovery because she won’t have to wear mourning for another year.
Scarred by the pox and small in size Pegge, struggles to be seen and heard in a household of singularly self-absorbed people. Donne, child seducer and suggested necromancer, is an intense narcissist. Fascinated by the romantic possibilities of his own death after his young wife expires in childbirth, he ignores his children and stokes the bonfires of his vanity, scaring his children with their diminishing options and posing for his sarcophagus. This is the real man of God, just a man after all, or a giant baby “whom grief made speechless like an infant,” as written on Ann’s tomb.
When will you speak in a loud voice, God, bidding me to take up my bed and walk? I must not drift off now. A man must be alert, not lax, at the moment of death. How many have evacuated their bowels? Become, against their will, aroused?
Sex and death vocalize in the Dean’s adjacent nether orifices. The book is a riot of sensation. Novik puts down her brushstrokes like an impressionist painter, each colour contrasting and complementing the one beside it. When light passes through the cracks there is redemption, as every great poets knows. Novik is herself a poet and this book, rich in texture, proves the axiom that, fiction is truer than truth.
Character is the engine of this scrupulously realized fantasy. Its narrative speaks in the involuntary progress of birth, copulation and death. As Donne extends the drama of his uncomfortable widowhood, we long for the poet to make good his promise to die and release the children from his tyranny. “Intense” is best compressed. Would he have died when he promised and the book ended one hundred pages sooner; but as God is our editor, so be it.
Linda Rogers, a poet and novelist, writes a monthly arts column for Focus Magazine.