Reader’s Guide

Book club guide by Doubleday Canada

Click here to print this guide for Conceit.

About this Book

“St Paul’s cathedral stands like a cornered beast on Ludgate hill, taking deep breaths above the smoke. The fire has made terrifying progress in the night and is closing in on the ancient monument from three directions. Built of massive stones, the cathedral is held to be invincible, but suddenly Pegge sees what the flames covet: the two hundred and fifty feet of scaffolding erected around the broken tower. Once the flames have a foothold on the wooden scaffolds, they can jump to the lead roof, and once the timbers burn and the vaulting cracks, the cathedral will be toppled by its own mass, a royal bear brought down by common dogs.” (p.9)

It is the Great Fire of 1666. The imposing edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a landmark of London since the twelfth century, is being reduced to rubble by the flames that engulf the City.

In the holocaust, Pegge and a small group of men struggle to save the effigy of her father, John Donne, famous love poet and the great Dean of St. Paul’s. Making their way through the heat and confusion of the streets, they arrive at Paul’s wharf. Pegge’s husband, William Bowles, anxiously scans the wretched scene, suddenly realizing why Pegge has asked him to meet her at this desperate spot.

The story behind this dramatic rescue begins forty years before the fire. Pegge Donne is still a rebellious girl, already too clever for a world that values learning only in men, when her father begins arranging marriages for his five daughters, including Pegge. Pegge, however, is desperate to taste the all-consuming desire that led to her parents’ clandestine marriage, notorious throughout England for shattering social convention and for inspiring some of the most erotic and profound poetry ever written. She sets out to win the love of Izaak Walton, a man infatuated with her older sister.

Stung by Walton’s rejection and jealous of her physically mature sisters, the boyish Pegge becomes convinced that it is her own father who knows the secret of love. She collects his poems, hoping to piece together her parents’ history, searching for some connection to the mother she barely knew.

Intertwined with Pegge’s compelling voice are those of Ann More and John Donne, telling us of the courtship that inspired some of the world’s greatest poetry of love and physical longing. Donne’s seduction leads Ann to abandon social convention, risk her father’s certain wrath, and elope with Donne. It is the undoing of his career and the two are left to struggle in a marriage that leads to her death in her twelfth childbirth at age thirty-three.

In Donne’s final days, Pegge tries, in ways that push the boundaries of daughterly behaviour, to discover the key to unlock her own sexuality. After his death, Pegge still struggles to free herself from an obsession that threatens to drive her beyond the bounds of reason. Even after she marries, she cannot suppress her independence or her desire to experience extraordinary love.

Conceit brings to life the teeming, bawdy streets of London, the intrigue-ridden court, and the lushness of the seventeenth-century English countryside. It is a story of many kinds of love–erotic, familial, unrequited, and obsessive–and the unpredictable workings of the human heart. With characters plucked from the pages of history, Mary Novik’s debut novel is an elegant, fully-imagined story of lives you will find hard to leave behind.


  1. Why does Pegge risk her life to rescue her father’s effigy from St. Paul’s during the London fire of 1666?
  2. Pegge is bright, quick-witted and independent yet chooses to lavish her attentions on Izaak Walton—a man she sometimes calls “idle” and “oafish.” Why does Pegge choose Walton as the object of her affections?
  3. What does the delayed arrival of Pegge’s “fleurs” herald? How does Pegge’s emotional turmoil during menstruation affect her perceptions of everyone around her—sisters, father, Walton, even her dead mother?
  4. Why does Pegge so fervently covet her time with her father, particularly when he is dying? Why does she protect those moments so vigorously from her sister and Walton? Why does she run away from the Deanery after her father’s death and roam the streets of London like a vagrant?
  5. What convinces Pegge to accept William Bowles as her husband?
  6. As well as portraying John and Ann’s marriage, and Pegge and William’s, Conceit also includes glimpses into the marriages of Samuel Pepys and Elizabeth, Walton and his two wives, and Constance and her husbands. Why do you think these relationships are included? Do they suggest an evolution in love-relationships and marriage in the seventeenth century?
  7. Intertwined with Pegge’s unique voice are the voices of her parents, John Donne and Ann More. What are your impressions of Ann and the story she tells? Was she really “slain by love, at far too young an age”? Why does she lie in wait for Donne to die?
  8. What do you believe is the essence of John and Ann’s love? How does Pegge’s love for William differ? Do you believe one relationship is a truer expression of love than the other?
  9. Pegge believes that after becoming a priest, her father decided to “cleanse himself of the taint of having loved.” Consider whether or not—and why—Donne believes the love he feels for his wife is a sin.
  10. When William discovers Pegge’s notes in Walton’s biography of Donne, he is intent on deciphering her code. What do you believe Pegge has written between the lines? What was her motivation? What is your reaction to the conversation between William and Pepys about the volume?
  11. While staying at Clewer after surviving the Great Fire, Walton is surprised by an amorous late night visitor. Walton believes it to be Con. Do you agree?
  12. What motivates Pegge to return her father’s effigy to St. Paul’s?
  13. Does Donne ultimately possess the secrets of love that Pegge seeks? Do you believe these secrets to be knowable? What are your impressions of Pegge’s final attempt to pull the secrets from her father? Why does a full revelation of this incident occur only after the Great Fire of 1666?
  14. Is there a part of the story of Conceit that you can’t leave behind? Is there a character you fell in love with? What is it about the character that appeals to you the most?
  15. Although Conceit is a fictional account of the lives of John Donne, Ann More, and Pegge Donne—as well as Izaak Walton and Samuel Pepys—reading about the real people might shed light on how the author fictionalizes them. Visit to learn more about the seventeenth-century backgrounds. What did you discover that enriches your reading of Conceit?