‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff – Marie de France, A Strong Visionary Woman

 

‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff (2021) – 257 pages

 

And now for something completely different.

Can Lauren Groff make a novel about an abbey of nuns in 12th century England that is moving and interesting to modern readers? Well, she succeeded with this not-so-modern reader.

I suppose ‘Matrix’ could be considered historical fiction, but virtually nothing is known of the life of Marie de France, so those annoying facts do not get in the way of a good story. The 12th century was a time in English history that I was mostly unfamiliar with, so I had the added pleasure of researching this era.

Geoffrey, Duke of Anjou

In ‘Matrix’, Marie de France is a bastardess, the product of a rape by her father Geoffrey who is the Duke of Anjou and also the progenitor of the Plantagenet royal family. Thus she is the half-sister of King Henry II and sister-in-law to his wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

After her mother has already died and while Marie is still a teenager she is cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine who considers Marie too big and rough-hewn and coarse for royal life. She is sent to an impoverished abbey to be its prioress.

In the night, a voice whispers that she cannot do this, she is but an uncouth girl belonging nowhere, beloved by no one, merely seventeen, not even seventeen, not even a real nun yet, and her habit is shamefully patched in different-colored wool, and her face holds no beauty, and her arms are merely woman’s arms. How dare she.”

But Marie is a strong thoughtful woman. As at first prioress and then as abbess, Marie must contend with many adversaries to the abbey including nearby wealthy landowners, delinquent renters, gangs of ruffians and even the male Church hierarchy as well as nature itself with storms and droughts. She kicks ass, she’s tough and big and forceful. She assigns each woman in the abbey to a role for which they are suited. Soon the underfed women in the abbey are well-fed and the abbey prospers.

With their heads bent over their books like this, their words palely shining, she understands that the abbey is a beehive, all her good bees working together in humility and devotion. This life is beautiful. This life with her nuns is full of grace. Marie sends a prayer to the Virgin in gratitude.”

Eleanor of Aquitaine

As depicted in ‘Matrix’, the life of Marie de France is heroic, but Marie has someone who is her own hero. Despite having sent her off to be the prioress, her sister-in-law Eleanor of Aquitaine is Marie’s hero. I researched the life of Eleanor, and it is indeed the stuff of legend. Eleanor was the most powerful woman and perhaps the most powerful person in 12th century Europe. She was Queen of France, married to Louis VII, for 15 years from 1137 to 1152. Then she had that marriage annulled due to consanguinity and married Henry II, King of Angevin (large parts of England, France, and Wales). where she was Queen for 35 years from 1154 to 1189. She led armies several times in her life and was one of the leaders of the Second Crusade. She was imprisoned by her husband Henry II for 16 years from 1173 to 1189 for supporting the revolt of her eldest son who later became Richard I (Richard the Lionhearted). While Richard went off to fight in the Third Crusade, Eleanor effectively ruled Angevin.

Meanwhile, back at the abbey, decades go by, and there are new threats to the abbey’s existence. Marie has visions from the Virgin Mary, and she has the nuns build a labyrinth to protect the abbey and then a dam to ensure the abbey has plenty of water for the animals and all. She names one of the old nuns, Swan-neck, to be the mistress of the lepers:

Swan-Neck smiles. Alas, she says, of course she is no saint. Only an old woman with pity in her heart. A rather common form of goodness. Marie tells her gently, so as to take away the sting, that such goodness can seem common only to those who see holiness in places where it is not.”

Here we have an eloquent and persuasive depiction of a successful society composed entirely of women. On one of her trips to London, as she is leaving, Marie reflects “she cannot take this seething city into her anymore, being in the proximity of so many of the far worser sex is filling her with aggression and fret. She thinks she is taking evil into her body with every breath.”

About all we know for sure with the current pandemic is that we are not so far removed from the Middle Ages as we thought we were.

Is God indeed a woman? We should be so lucky.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

 

8 responses to this post.

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed Matrix, as I’ve a copy myself and plan on reading it sooner rather than later. It does seem like quite a stretch for Groff, at least in subject matter, and I’ve been eager to see if she can carry it off (I like medieval history BTW and at one time read/studied quite a bit of it). The medieval convent was quite the interesting institution. As many scholars have remarked, it was one of the few areas where women could run their own affairs, at least to some extent, with minimal interference from the male hierarchy. If you’re interested in another great novel on the subject, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them is a classic, albeit a time consuming and rather demanding one (I reviewed in at some point).
    I just clicked on your review of Fates & Furies, which I thought was a great novel, and was happy to see you shared my opinion! I haven’t read Florida (short story collections don’t tend to get priority on my TBR list) and have avoided Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton (I may reconsider this!). I did read Arcadia; it was incredibly well done, I admired it but didn’t like it much. Conclusion: Groff is incredibly talented, I might not personally like all her work but she’s someone who’s ALWAYS worth checking out!

    Liked by 1 person

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    • Hi Janakay,
      A novel about a 12th century English convent is not at all what you would expect from a US writer. While I was reading the novel, I did a lot of research about that time because it was quite unknown to me. Someone else mentioned ‘The Corner that Held Them’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a writer I have not read. ‘Fates & Furies’ was my favorite novel for the year it came out, but I see that the book of stories ‘Florida’ really didn’t work for me.
      It is quite enjoyable for me to research a time while I am reading a novel about it. It sounds like you enjoy that also. But ‘Matrix’ goes beyond your usual historical novel with insights into our own time.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

  2. It was very clever of Groff to center her novel on a relatively unknown historical figure, thereby giving her plentry of room to invent (otherwise, most of the reviewers would spend half their space pointing out petty little discrepancies from the historical record). And, let’s face it, any historical novel involving a woman’s struggle for autonomy and self-expression has much relevance for the present day!

    Liked by 1 person

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    • Yes, when next to nothing is known about someone, you can get away with making up any stories about them that you like. I actually requested the book of poems written by Marie de France from the library but am not sure what I’ll be doing with them at this point. Lauren Groff could have at least quoted a few lines from them, but she didn’t.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

  3. I enjoyed this review very much. I loved Lauren Groff’s first novel, but never got around to her later work. I had not heard of Marie de France, but Eleanor of Aquitaine does interest me. So perhaps I’ll try this one. Thanks for calling it to my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Hi Kat,
      I did not discover Lauren Groff until ‘Fates and Furies’, and she has been on my Must-Read list since then. If females are looking for a heroic role model they can identify with, Eleanor of Aquitaine is probably a better choice than Joan of Arc.

      Like

      Reply

  4. If you liked this one, you might like Book of Colours, by Robyn Cadwallader, which is about a family who does those beautiful illuminated manuscripts…

    Liked by 1 person

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