The Great Fire of London is the framing device for Mary Novik’s insightful portrait of famous and obscure 17th-century Londoners. This novel explores the life and family background of Pegge Donne, daughter of preacher and poet John Donne, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Her childhood unfolds not only in his shadow but also in the one cast by her beautiful, scheming sister Constance.
Awkward and precocious, Pegge attains womanhood more slowly than she would like. It is essential for Donne’s many daughters to marry well. Constance, the unobtainable but enduring passion of young Izaak Walton, Pegge’s fishing-mad friend, twice succeeds. Pegge, trapped at home by her father’s last, lingering illness, nurses the man who did not value her and waits for young Walton to notice her.
His physical decline approaching, Donne’s pride, his flaws, and the venialities of his past are revealed. Using the entombed Anne Donne’s viewpoint, Novik traces the scandalous passion that resulted in a well-born young woman’s runaway match with the unscrupulous and sensual upstart Donne.
Pegge’s eventual and less flamboyant marriage to the Master of the King’s Wardrobe removes her to his country estate where she blossoms, romantically and creatively. Her husband Will, while often bemused by the complexities of his wife’s character, capably copes with her many eccentricities. Pegge’s long rivalry with sister Constance endures, but motherhood softens her edges. The fire that consumes London destroys Donne’s great self-designed mausoleum, freeing Pegge from the fetters of her past.