Matrix is a beautifully-written historical novel by Lauren Groff about the medieval abbess and poet Marie de France. Not much is known about the real Marie de France, so much of the novel is Groff’s own invention. The book begins in 1158, when the heroine is seventeen, and continues through her old age and death in 1215. Marie, the character in the novel, is the illegitimate daughter of Geoffrey of Anjou, the husband of the Empress Matilda, and so she is the half-sister of Henry II of England and the sister-in-law of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Groff combines the real Marie de France, the poet, with the abbess Mary of Shaftesbury, who actually was the half-sister of Henry II. In real life, Marie de France and Mary of Shaftesbury might have been the same person, but they might not have. There is not enough evidence either way.
Groff’s Marie is a product of rape. Her mother, one of a family of women warriors, was raped by Geoffrey of Anjou. As a child, Marie goes on the Second Crusade with her mother and the other women of her family, as part of an army of women, and she meets Eleanor of Aquitaine for the first time, when Eleanor is still Queen of France. When Eleanor marries Henry II of England, Marie goes to the English court with her. At seventeen, Marie is very tall, clumsy, awkward, and plain-faced, and not considered marriageable. Her illegitimate birth has much to do with her lack of marriage prospects, too. There is an early scene between Marie and the Empress Matilda, where Matilda obviously considers her husband’s illegitimate daughter an embarrassment. Because Eleanor can not find a husband for her, she sends Marie away from the court to be the prioress of a remote abbey in a marshy area in England. The abbey is never named, but it is possibly Shaftesbury, if the identification with Mary of Shaftesbury is correct.
Marie hates the idea of being a nun, because she has no vocation, and not even any strong religious beliefs. She is also attracted to Eleanor. Groff portrays Marie as a lesbian, even though there is no evidence that the historical Marie de France was a lesbian. But then, there is no evidence that she wasn’t, either. In the novel, Marie struggles with her feelings of attraction to other women, considering it a sin, until eventually she comes to terms with her sexuality.
When she arrives at the abbey, it is a tiny, struggling community of twenty starving nuns. A coughing sickness had recently devastated the abbey. The abbess is blind, and desperately in need of a prioress to take dictation from her, for the abbey’s correspondence, and she welcomes the young girl who can read and write. The subprioress, Goda, is sour and resentful, and takes an instant dislike to Marie, because she thinks she should have been named prioress instead. Goda proves to be a more complex character than she appears at first, and it turns out she is excellent at taking care of the animals at the abbey. Before she can take up the position of prioress, Marie must undergo the novitiate at the hands of Wevua, the stern, even cruel, mistress of novices. She makes two close friends, Ruth and a girl only known as Swan-neck. Of the two girls, Swan-neck always remains loyal to her, but Marie and Ruth have a serious falling-out, many years into Marie’s term as abbess.
As prioress, Marie works to improve the life of the nuns, and sometimes resorts to dishonest methods to do so, including creating false accounts to deceive the church officials into thinking the abbey has more money than it does. When she arrived, the nuns were assigned to tasks that were unsuited to their abilities, as a form of penance, but Marie reverses that order and assigns them to the things they do best. She also founds a scriptorium, with Gytha, an illuminator of manuscripts, in charge, and, when the abbey’s rye makes people sick, she decides to plant that field with wheat instead, and soon the crops thrive.
Much time goes by (and Groff compresses many years into one long chapter), and Marie becomes abbess following the old abbess’ death. During this whole time, she keeps trying to find ways to communicate with Eleanor, because she is still upset that the queen cast her out. She writes a book of poetry, dedicated to Henry II, but really meant for Eleanor, and, when she receives no word from the queen, she writes another book, this time of fables, based on Aesop’s Fables. For years, the queen remains unresponsive.
Then Marie begins having visions of Eve and the Virgin Mary, which give her ideas for various building projects at the abbey. The nuns are divided about the nature of her visions. Her supporters believe in them, but there are also nuns who distrust her and resent her authority, and they cast doubt on the authenticity of her visions, saying she made them up in order to justify her own ambitions. Groff leaves it up to the reader, whether Marie’s visions are genuine or not. It is interesting, though, that they begin when Marie is going through menopause and having hot flashes. They continue long past that time, though.
Marie’s first building project is a labyrinth that surrounds the abbey and cuts it off from the nearby town, so that visitors will have to go through the long and difficult path of the labyrinth to get to the abbey. The church authorities and the people of the town strongly oppose the labyrinth. When armed villagers come to attack the labyrinth, the nuns take up arms, fight back, and defeat them, with Marie using her experience as a child warrior. After the labyrinth is built and the abbey is cut off from the outside world, the community of nuns thrives, and increases from the original twenty nuns to nearly two hundred. Marie becomes the leader of a self-sufficient utopian community, as the nuns grow all their own crops and raise livestock. Some of the nuns even perform work that was usually done by men, as blacksmiths and carpenters.
After the success of the labyrinth, Marie’s next project is an abbess house, to which she hopes Eleanor will retire. She is eventually reunited with Eleanor, but the queen would rather retire to a wealthier abbey. They carry on a correspondence over the years, though, so there is a reconciliation of sorts. The abbess house proves to be another success, even though it will not be used for its original purpose, to provide a home for Eleanor. This is the one time when the nuns need outside help with the building. They hire male stonemasons, who must come blindfolded to the site, but there are devastating consequences for one of the young nuns, who ends up pregnant.
Marie’s final project is a dam, so that the nuns will have water in times of drought. Again, there is much opposition to it, and it causes a flood. All of Marie’s projects have serious consequences for the environment, although she is unaware of the impact. She thinks she’s improving the lives of the nuns of her community, and she is, but she doesn’t realize the long-term implications of her actions. Groff makes the reader aware of what is happening to the environment, as trees are torn down, the area is flooded, and animals are displaced from their habitat.
When a mysterious illness devastates the nearby town, the priests who come to the abbey to say Mass and take confessions all die, and, instead of sending for a priest from another town, Marie decides to do the priest’s duties herself. Many of the nuns are horrified at the idea of a woman saying Mass, and this causes a rift in the community, with Marie’s close friend Ruth turning against her. Others support her, though, and some of the nuns make confessions to her that they would never make to a male priest. Marie goes on in spite of the opposition. During the papal interdict of 1208, she refuses to tell the nuns that England is under interdict, so they can go on as before. Only her prioress, Tilde, who is a distant relation of the royal family, finds out by accident when she sees one of Marie’s letters, but she does not oppose her.
Marie is a very complex character. She is a strong leader of her community and inspires great loyalty, but she also makes many enemies with her unconventional beliefs and her building projects that isolate the community. Marie is not always sympathetic. She can be ruthless in her ambitions, and will resort to violence and dishonesty when she thinks it’s in her interest to do so, but ultimately she proves to be quite admirable. The reader feels for her when Eleanor rejects her, and when some of her friends turn against her.
Lauren Groff has a beautiful writing style, which is almost like poetry. Matrix is not the easiest book to read, and it took me a while to get used to Groff’s style. Another reviewer has said that Hilary Mantel is the closest comparison, so if you enjoyed Wolf Hall and its sequels, you will probably enjoy Matrix. I admit I tried to read one of Mantel’s books once and couldn’t get into it, but I would like to try again. Groff writes as an outside narrator looking in at the lives of her characters, especially Marie. The language is stunning once you get used to it. The novel is written in the present tense, which I usually dislike in historical fiction, but it works here because it gives the reader a sense of immediacy. You are drawn into the community that Groff creates.
Matrix is not a plot-centered novel. Instead, it is a series of episodes in the life of Marie and her community of nuns. The book is full of details in the lives of the nuns. There is not much action, except for the scene where the nuns defend their labyrinth from the villagers, but you can see what harsh lives the nuns led. Because of the lack of modern medicine, seemingly minor accidents can be devastating. Disease and starvation are constant threats. Marie is to be admired for making her community thrive in the midst of all this. I highly recommend this novel. If you have a hard time getting into it, stay with it. To me it proved rewarding in the end. Matrix is also a great book to read for Women’s History Month, as it celebrates the accomplishments of a community of women in difficult times.
Matrix is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.