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In writing Conceit, 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. Izaak Walton was very helpful also, with his book on fishing and his biography of Donne. He wormed himself into my affections so fully that Pegge became infatuated with him. I have written separate posts on Izaak Walton, John Evelyn, and Samuel Pepys below.
Donne’s own works were invaluable, for instance the sermon he preached just before he died, “Death’s Duel” (available in the searchable digital collection of John Donne’s sermons). During an earlier illness, he wrote Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, in which he penned the 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.” These famous lines appear in Meditation 17 on pp. 415-6 of the tiny duodecimo of 630 pages. 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. Although most of Donne’s writings survive, there’s no trace of the voices of Ann or her daughter Pegge. The women in Donne’s life are known to history only through church records (births, marriages, deaths) and letters written by male relatives. However, piecing Donne’s love poems together into a chronological story, as Pegge does–becoming more obsessed and jealous in the process–gave me insight into John and Ann’s extraordinary love–the fictional narrative that is at the heart of Conceit.