THE LADY AND THE POET is a tale about the wonderful Jacobean poet John Donne (1572-1633) and his wife Ann More (1584-1617) a distant cousin of Sir Thomas More, the Catholic martyr who was beheaded by Henry VIII.
The story begins in 1598, when Ann is fourteen years old. Her elder sister Bett is about to be married to a “suitable” bridegroom chosen by her father. What this usually meant was that a teenaged girl was forced to mate with a gentleman old enough to be her father. But Bett is saintly and patient, and goes to her marriage with a smile on her face. A year later, she is dead in childbirth, aged about sixteen.
Now it is Ann’s turn. This time, her father has chosen a well-favored young man, one Thomas Manners, who must be a forebear of the famous aristocratic family of the 17th and 18th centuries. However, Thomas’s father doesn’t entirely approve of the match, and spends three long years disputing the amount of dowry that Ann is to bring.
The whole plot turns on this fact, which means that Ann is never actually betrothed to Thomas. Enter John Donne, a witty poet, and employed by Ann’s uncle, the Keeper of the Seal. Ann is fourteen, Donne is twenty-six. It is not exactly love at first sight, but Donne is impressed by the young girl’s education, and perceptive comments. For Ann is no ordinary young lady, but can read Latin and Greek, courtesy of her grandfather.
Naturally, Donne is seen as completely unsuitable by Ann’s family. Naturally, Ann’s father has a way of behaving like a two-year-old in a temper tantrum when his will is crossed.
I won’t tell the rest of the story, so as not to spoil the novel for you.
This was an enjoyable read, despite some problems with pacing and story structure.
STORY STRUCTURE: I was bothered by the beginning because it seemed to start and then re-start again a few pages later. I expected the novel to begin at Bett’s wedding day, but in fact it starts slightly before. I am not sure why Ms. Shepard chose to do this, because it forces the reader to read the same information twice, giving it this start-restart effect. An easy fix is to cut the beginning and start on the wedding day.
PACING: The characters of Ann More and John Donne were so well-drawn, they turned the pages of the novel for me. But as it went along, it became increasingly repetitive as the author detailed every conceivable thing that went wrong. This was unfortunate because it made the story flat and uninteresting. I reckon that a good 50 pages could have and should have been cut, which would have streamlined the story and quickened the pacing.
Despite these misgivings, this novel is a good read for those of you who have read John Donne’s poems, and wish to know more about the (very) young woman who captured his heart. Four stars.