Lauren Groff’s latest novel Matrix is a lyrical blend of historical fiction and myth-making that takes place in a nunnery during the mid-12th and early 13th centuries, the time of the Crusades. The novel gives Groff the opportunity to celebrate and hypothesize about the life of her “beloved Marie de France,” an actual medieval writer who was France’s first female poet. Little about the real Marie is known, other than what can be determined from her book and its 12 lais, those rhymed lines of romantic narrative, and their prologue. Fluent in Latin, Marie also translated Aesop’s Fables into ancien français, and even wrote her own fables. The poet and translator David R. Slavitt writes that there were many Maries at the time, but only a few who could read and write in English, Latin, and Anglo-Norman French. Slavitt writes:
Marie, Abbess of Shaftesbury, the illegitimate daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet and half-sister to Henry II, King of England, is a plausible candidate, but Marie, Abbess of Reading, Marie I of Boulogne, Marie, Abbess of Barking, and Marie de Meulan, wife of Hugh Talbot, are all possibilities.(The Lais of Marie de France, p. IX)
Groff, an eloquent fictioneer whose style is about as poetic as you can get without actually being poetry, has chosen the Abbess of Shaftesbury as the model for her fictionalized Marie. The historical genre seems, at first, quite a departure for Groff, but she has ventured into the spiritual and into myth-making in much of her short fiction. Her story collection Florida (2018), which should have won a Pulitzer, was nominated for a National Book Award for Fiction and so was her previous and best novel (until now), Fates & Furies (2015), also nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
An outcast, Groff’s Marie is a homely giant who, as an early feminist, becomes one of the most powerful people in the Medieval European world. Groff’s story follows the fictional Marie throughout her life and portrays her in a female Utopia in the High Middle Ages in which men are seldom mentioned. It’s 1158 when Queen Eleanor sends 17-year-old Marie from the royal court in Westminster to an abbey in England where she has been appointed prioress. The queen tells poor Marie that the appointment is “wonderful news,” but it’s just a convenient way of placing Marie, this half-sibling to the crown, in a useful, but out-of-the-way position. Marie, a “maiden bastardess formed of rape,” makes the journey on the back of an old warhorse and arrives at the impoverished abbey in the late winter of March, near Easter, which is arriving early that year.
Marie hates the abbey. The nuns are poor and starving; they are nearly as put off by Marie as she is by them. Marie can barely speak English, and the sight of her probably has as much impact on the nuns as it does on the reader. Groff writes:
She is tall, a giantess of a maiden, and her elbows and knees stick out, ungainly; the fine rain gathers until it runs in rivulets down her sealskin cloak and darkens her green headcloths to black. Her stark Angevin face holds no beauty, only canniness and passion yet unchecked.
Groff depicts Marie as unattractive, perhaps, to make the point that a woman needn’t be physically beautiful to be successful. Besides being a physically huge person—she’s three heads too tall—Marie is a stubborn and determined soul. She plans to be returned to court after sending the queen her beautiful lais written in “fine musical French,” a “blazing arrow” that will transmit Marie’s lyrical beauty and her truth, thus setting the queen’s “cruel heart afire” and affecting Marie’s return “to the place where none ever starve, and there is always music and dogs and birds and life, where at dusk the gardens are full of lovers and flowers and intrigue.”
When things don’t work out the way Marie has planned, she starts making changes to the way of life at the abbey. During Marie’s tenure as prioress and latter as abbess, she enriches nuns, the servants, and the others under her protection. Over the years, the number of nuns increases, and, since many of the novices come from wealthy or royal families, the worth of their dowries increases. Marie shows the silk-spinning nuns how to catch worms to fish for trout and teaches the field nuns how to find edible mushrooms. She demotes the nun who was in charge of the cellar to the fields, since she was hoarding bacon. And although eating four-legged animals is usually against the rules, Marie wants the meat to be eaten by everyone in her charge. During Marie’s fifth year at the abbey, when she is only 21, she stops the silk work and begins a scriptorium, work usually done in the monasteries. Notice Groff doesn’t refer to men or even monks, but to monasteries. The nuns even revise prayers spoken by priests for their own use. ’Tis a world without men, amen. Some of Marie’s newest novices can read and write, but eventually even older nuns, like Sister Gytha, join in the illustrating and transcribing. Gytha’s “teeth are lined in blue from where she sucks on the lapis lazuli brush to make it a finer point.” The nuns do the transcribing work at one-quarter of the price of the monasteries, even though “women are not supposed to be scriptrices,” since “they are not thought able or wise enough.” The scriptrices make 10 times more money for the abbey than silk-spinning and weaving did. One secret to Marie’s success: instead of assigning nuns to jobs they hate as a form of penance, Marie puts them to work in jobs they are good at.
Marie and her family of holy women suffer setbacks, of course; sickness and death, and demands by the crown for money as a form of tax on the prosperity at the abbey. With Marie’s success come detractors and the inevitable criticism and gossip that Marie is evil and may be a witch. Still, Marie rises above the disapproval, the gossip, and the ephemeral reversals. She can be ruthless, too, as a certain young novice discovers, but she is a woman of vision and she has 19 of them, directives from the Virgin Mary. Marie believes visions are never complete until they are set down, so she includes descriptions of them in her little book.
In one of those visions, the Virgin tells Marie that she must build a labyrinth “to remove her daughters [the nuns] from worldly influence.” So, Marie and her nuns build a labyrinth in the forest that encircles the abbey. They construct a secret passage of trees and shrubs, “so complex it would dismay all but the most determined visitors.” Not only did the labyrinth protect Marie’s women, there would be no authority in the abbey other than Marie—not the queen, the crown, or her so-called diocesan superiors who are likely male, though Groff makes it a point not to say they are.
Even as a young girl Marie was rebellious. She wonders: why should babies be born into sin? She doubts that there is a trinity of God. And “why should she, who felt her greatness hot in her blood, be considered lesser because the first woman was molded from a rib and ate a fruit and thus lost lazy Eden? It was senseless.” Marie’s rebelliousness grows as she ages. She is rebellious to the point of being sacrilegious, at least to her diocesan superiors. Eventually, Marie says Mass and hears confessions, which apparently was not unusual for an abbess in the Middle Ages, but certainly frowned upon. It seems odd that throughout most of the text, Groff has written “god” in lower case more than 60 times; the few exceptions occur in “Mother of God” and “wrath of God.” But Groff tells me in an email that she “was trying to strip gender from many/most things, including the concept of god—to make the word more abstract, less tied to the traditional vision of the giant bearded angry dude in the sky.”
So, what isn’t odd at all, is another exception in which Groff writes about God’s gender: “Marie longs for it, longs for it, her whole body reaches for it, the gold, the heavenly music, the release. To see god, who is not split in three, but singular. God, sole, female.” And capitalized.