Author Tags: Fiction, Literary Criticism

Mary Novik's first published novel Conceit (Doubleday, 2007) is about Pegge Donne, the daughter of the poet John Donne, who audaciously rebels against her father's plans for her arranged marriage, desperate for passion against the backdrop of London and the Great Fire of 1666, in the 17th century. It received the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2008.

As a follow-up to Conceit, Mary Novik crafted Muse (Random $22.95) about the woman who inspired Petrarch’s love poetry. As Pope Clement VI’s mistress in Rome, Solange LeBlance rose to prominence in Renaissance Europe only to be accused of sorcery when a plague killed one-third of Avignon’s population. The novel recalls how Solange was forced to reinvent herself in order to survive. 978-0-385-66821-7

Novik's unpublished first novel, A Bracelet of Bright Hair, was a finalist in the Chapters/Robertson Davies competition in 2000 and two excerpts were published in The New Quarterly #85 and 86 in 2003.

Born in Victoria, Novik received her Ph.D from University of British Columbia. Also the author of Robert Creeley: An Inventory (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1973), Novik has been a literature and creative writing instructor at Langara College and reviewed poetry for The Vancouver Sun for five years. As well, she has written articles for Books in Canada, The Globe & Mail and magazines such as West Coast Review. She has been a member of the writing group SPiN which also includes Jen Sookfong Lee (The End of East, Knopf, March 2007) and June Hutton (Underground, Cormorant, February 2009).


Robert Creeley: An Inventory (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1973)
Conceit (Doubleday, 2007) 978-0-385-66205-5

Conceit (Doubleday, 2007)

Muse (Random House, 2013)

[BCBW 2013] "Literary Criticism" "Fiction"

Muse by Mary Novik (Doubleday Canada $22.95)
Review (2013)

from Joan Givner
In her first novel Conceit (Doubleday, 2007)—for which Mary Novik received the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize—we were introduced to the daughter of the poet John Donne, the literate heroine Pegge Donne, who audaciously rebels against her father’s plans for her arranged marriage in seventeenth century London. Now, in Muse, Novik imagines a literate, nun-turned-prostitute named Solange Le Blanc, who inspired Francesco Petrarch’s love poetry, only to be accused of sorcery when a plague kills one-third of Avignon’s population. Set in Renaissance Europe, the novel recounts how Petrarch’s fictional mistress was forced to reinvent herself in order to survive. Our reviewer describes Muse as a cross between Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel will be available August 15.

During the fourteenth-century, the papacy was based for seventy years not in Rome, but in Avignon, now part of France. It was here that the Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarch came to improve his fortunes, and where he wrote the poems to Laura for which he is best known. The sonnet form to which he gave his name influenced many English poets, including Sir Thomas Wyatt and Shakespeare.

While his clerical status prevented Petrarch from marrying, the records indicate that he fathered two children by an unknown woman. To this hitherto unknown woman Mary Novik gives substance and a strong narrative voice for her second novel, Muse.

Petrarch’s mistress is Solange, born in a brothel in Avignon as the illegitimate daughter of a pope and his mistress. Following the death of both her parents, the precocious child is taken into Clairefontaine Abbey, where her gift for prophetic visions (she experiences her first vision while in the womb) is encouraged by the abbess, who dreams of nurturing a prophet-saint, like the legendary German mystic, abbess and composer Hildegard of Bingen, to glorify her abbey.
At Clairefontaine, Solange develops skills as a scribe and a linguist until the rich promise of her life as a nun and a woman of letters is brought to an abrupt end by a brutal rape. Solange is attacked in the scriptorium by a visiting Florentine cleric and subsequently propelled from the cloister “outwards into the world of men.”

Returning to her birthplace in Avignon, Solange survives among the prostitutes as a professional scribe. It is this literary work that brings her to the attention of Petrarch. She quickly becomes an indispensable amanuensis, copying, editing and encouraging his verse. The two become lovers:
This act so new to me, so quick, so carnal, was also spiritual, for in that mutual joy our base affections were transmuted into purer metal, as alchemy turns lead to gold. Surely this ecstasis, like being pierced by a flaming spear such as angels carry, was how the soul felt when it pierced the resurrected flesh. A nightjar whirred as it took flight above the chapel and I came back to myself slowly, cautiously, knowing that I had been forever changed.

From this point, the pace of the novel accelerates as Solange’s entanglement with Petrarch, his conniving brother, and his best friend sets her on a headlong course. Overcoming rape, coerced sex, childbirth and the kidnapping and loss of her children, she becomes a picaresque heroine who survives by means of her beauty and talent. Solange also lives through the plague, experiences prophetic visions, is suspected of sorcery and witnesses the burning at the stake of her maid who is mistaken for herself.
Throughout all these adventures, Solange’s love for Petrarch
remains steadfast, even as she takes other lovers. One of these is the

Elderly Pope Clement VI: Since the papal bed was too short for us to stretch out fully, we embraced sitting up, then turned sideways to pleasure one another. His desire keen and quickly satisfied, his manners courtly, Clement was always regretful to dismiss me to my chamber. As I left, his stewards rushed in to sit him up, for the Pope must sleep upright in case God called him in the night.

The various strands that make up the story are linked by Novik’s overarching passion for the world of literature and her interest in the role of women in that world. The ruthlessly ambitious Petrarch, a man torn between two women who nurture his art in different ways, looks to Solange for practical help and for the satisfaction of his sexual needs. However, the conventions of courtly love require him to find his inspiration in a less earthy, more ethereal woman—the highborn, unattainable Laura. Thus the title of the novel takes on an interesting ambiguity.

As an unprotected woman with no family, Solange is trapped by the conflicting ambitions of those with better prospects or power. Petrarch is proud of the son she bears, but he cannot allow his child to be raised in a brothel.

She concludes, “I had been betrayed by Francesco, by this city of men, by this church that turned honest women into courtesans because canons were forbidden to marry.” The suppression of her own talent recalls Virginia Woolf’s meditation on the tragic fate of Shakespeare’s sister if she, too, had been born a genius.

When Solange seeks refuge once more at Clairefontaine, she again falls prey to the ambitions of the abbess. This time it is the narrative of her protegee’s life to which the abbess lays claim. She wishes it to be written as hagiography, with the prophetic visions and sainthood bringing fame to her abbey. If Solange’s checkered past doesn’t exactly lend itself to saintly treatment, it can be edited and reshaped.

There is no doubt that the sensational twists and turns of Novik’s plot, the rapid changes of scene, and the piling on of horrors, all combine to give this story a wide appeal. A minority of readers might regret that Novik’s thoughtful subject matter is overwhelmed by the trappings of popular historical fiction—rapes, tortures and grisly corpses and sometimes over-heated prose.

Regardless, the various themes in Muse—women as nurturers of male artists, as muse figures, as artist’s models and subjects—are skilfully woven by Novik, and given resonance by her knowledge of the historical and literary background. Her quotations of lines from Petrarch’s sonnets in the original Italian, followed by English translations, are especially well done. 978-0-385-66821-7

Herself a novelist, Joan Givner of Mill Bay has written biographies of Katherine Anne Porter and Mazo de la Roche.