Read with sharon - December 2021
Matrix - lauren groff
Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.
At first, taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions. Marie, born the last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, is determined to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads and protects.
But in a world that is shifting and corroding in frightening ways, one that can never reconcile itself with her existence, will the sheer force of Marie’s vision be bulwark enough?
Equally alive to the sacred and the profane, gathers currents of violence, sensuality, and religious ecstasy in a mesmerizing portrait of consuming passion, aberrant faith, and a woman that history moves both through and around. Lauren Groff’s new novel, her first since Fates and Furies, is a defiant and timely exploration of the raw power of female creativity in a corrupted world.
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Setting a feminist story in the 12th century is no easy feat. There’s always the possibility of coming on too strong and imposing modern ideologies onto a period where they may not be as believable as the author hopes.
But Lauren Groff’s Matrix is an inspiring novel that truly demonstrates the power women wield, regardless of the era. It has sisterhood, love, war, sex — and many graphic deaths, all entangled in a once-forgotten abbey in the English countryside.
Matrix introduces a warlike poet-nun, based on the real medieval author Marie de France, who challenges the Catholic church and the very foundations of patriarchy — while also exploring womanhood and unbridled sexuality. We meet Marie just as she is expelled from the French royal court and banished to England to be the new prioress of an ailing abbey filled with sick and starving nuns.
Reluctant at first to assume her role as prioress to pious old women, 17-year-old Marie attempts to reverse her banishment by writing an extensive ode to Queen Eleanor in an attempt to win her favor and be asked back to court. (This is Groff’s only nod to the poet’s real life in the novel.) But Marie’s writing days are quickly replaced with a spiritual devotion to the women who she comes to care for.
Her unattractive visage and towering, manly body may have made her unsuitable for court life and marriage, but Marie uses her domineering image for the good of the abbey — increasing its wealth, building its security, and making a name for them in the far corners of England.
Despite her rough start, Marie spends over half a century at the monastery, securing a strong — though controversial — legacy for herself. She arrives as a child and grows into a formidable woman, with urges, desires, and issues like any other woman. Guided by visions she claims are from God, given to her to protect the women under her care, she also stirs trouble — because a woman like her should not have power.
Groff often conflates Marie’s desire for power with her desire to keep her charges safe: She publicly challenges political laws, social structures, and ecclesiastical mores, seemingly for her personal enjoyment and prosperity. Outside the abbey walls, crusades and political stratagems occupy her mind.
Though feminism was not a concept of Marie’s time, her actions take on a feminist tone, and she works hard to ensure that both she and her abbey are independent from men. She also understands the necessity of having a strong reputation and makes a purposeful effort to have stories about her prowess promulgated across the land.
“Before she leaves, she pulls off the hoods one by one and stares grimly down; she wants her face to be the thing remembered whey they think upon their deathbeds of their most grievous sins,” Groff writes of Marie’s attitude towards interlopers who attempt to attack the abbey.
With masterful wordplay and pacing, Groff builds what could have been a mundane storyline into something quite impossible to put down. The writing itself is a demonstration of power. Eschewing direct dialogue and traditional chapters for a three-part structure, the story starts slow but then picks up the pace, barreling through Marie’s years at the convent.
The novel’s prose is well constructed and filled with strong imagery that will remain embedded in your subconscious days later. “It is marshland with stunted swamp trees like hands scratching as a low sky,” Groff writes of the site of one of Marie’s overambitious projects. Her use of short but not entirely quick sentences, particularly at the start of the novel, is a tricky way of pacing a story that is written in such a formal tone.
There are moments where we witness the growth of a woman in a religious institution and everything is sacred — at least for a moment. Then in quick succession, Groff reminds us that yes, these are women of God, but sometimes they’re just earthly women.
Her allusions to female pleasure — such as masturbation and oral sex — are done as stealthily as her allusions to heinous actions such as rape, almost like a whisper that you might miss if you’re not paying attention. But there are instances where allusions are not enough, and she is graphic, leaving little to the imagination when discussing death and sickness.
As the novel develops, Marie begins to see herself as royalty with papal privileges — elevating herself to blasphemous stature. But she is also continuously filled with sexual desires, even into her old age, and ravenous with ambition, which leads her to question herself: What does it mean to be a chaste, good, and moral nun? In fact, what does it mean to be a woman?
Abbess Marie, venerated and ambitious, is driven by a mission to achieve greatness, something many women can identify with today. Matrix exposes the complexity of being a woman living in a world where men make all the rules, regardless of the era. But it also may leave you wondering whether this is a story about one woman’s feminist aspirations — or her overzealous ambition.
The author of Fates and Furies has been much acclaimed, especially in the US, for sharp yet exuberant writing about contemporary marriage, parenthood, sexual rivalry and the threats that lie in the midst of daily routines. Now, in an appealingly unpredictable move, Lauren Groff has turned her attentions to 12th-century English nuns. The result is a highly distinctive novel of great vigour and boldness. From mystical visions that may or may not be divine, to the earthy business of abbey pigs, diseases and account books, Groff does it all with purpose and panache.
We meet protagonist Marie emerging from a forest on horseback, like a knight errant at the start of a medieval romance – except not, because she’s a young woman, it’s a drizzling March day and “the world bears the weariness of late Lent”. She has been ejected from court by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine: “thrown to the dogs”, or at least sent off to be prioress at a remote royal abbey. Appalled by the prospect ahead, agonised by leaving her devoutly loved Eleanor behind, she goes to her doom. “Her old warhorse glumly plods along.”
Matrix is a very free imagining of the life of Marie de France. Almost nothing is known about this pioneering poet except what she tells us, with a self-assertion unusual for her time and gender, in her collection of Breton lais, or romances, and translations of Aesop’s fables. She was probably writing in England, though she came from northern France. Her poetry gives no indication that she belonged to a religious house, though she has been tentatively identified with Mary, abbess of Shaftesbury. Groff seizes on the few hints, rides cantering into the huge gaps, and makes up a life for Marie – a long and full life as a visionary leader, queer lover, writer and mother, or “matrix”, to a thriving community of women.
The future does not look auspicious for Groff’s Marie when she arrives among half-starving sisters in a “stinking mud-befouled corner of Angleterre”. Anywhere in England is bad enough, but “even for England this is pathetic”. Cecily, her maid and lover at court, has refused to live among nuns who pray so much they are “up and down all day, like marmots”. Furious, lonely, sensually hungry, Marie begins to apply herself to improving the lot of her new community. Over the next five decades, as prioress and then abbess, she will enact her increasingly extravagant plan for a female utopia.
As in Groff’s earlier fiction, we are carried on the force of her style, and held by the strength of an intelligence that lets comedy and emotional complexity work together. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 novel The Corner That Held Them is a hard act to follow when it comes to modern takes on medieval convent society. But Groff shares many of Townsend Warner’s qualities – lightning wit, political acuity, delight in idiosyncratic character – and one feels a kind of continuity between them.
Groff’s way of working with history is often to revise it with intent. Marie dedicated her lais to a “noble king”, presumably Henry II; her fictional counterpart writes the poems for Eleanor, sending the collection as a “blazing arrow” towards her. The literary conventions of courtly love are shrewdly redeployed so that instead of a knight stricken with love for an unreachable and closely guarded woman, we have gallant, fierce, undefeated Marie offering her soul to the queen. The surviving lais of Marie de France turn on images of female imprisonment; Groff’s invented Marie overleaps restrictions while also embracing forms of collective discipline. She won’t be trapped like those ladies at court who never think of “galloping through fields … nor swimming naked in a river”. This warrior woman with her sleeves rolled up is not walled in but in charge of wall-building.
“I wanted to get as far away from Trump’s America as possible,” Groff has said. But this is not historical fiction as an escape route from the present. It is an assertively modern novel about leadership, ambition and enterprise, and about the communal life of individuals. Is Marie right to collect rents from impoverished tenants? Why do the nuns not push back against her domination of the abbey? “For it is a deep and human truth,” we are told by a narrator who is partly Marie, that most people want to feel “safe in the hands of a force far greater than themselves”. Groff refuses easy feminist wins: Marie takes on the role of priest but without the balance to see that the boss should not also be hearing her underlings’ confessions.
The emphasis on women’s working lives (rarely a strong point in medieval romance) is among the novel’s most striking aspects. Specialist nuns weave and bake, Goda runs the farm, insane Gytha is painting wild scenes in the margins of manuscripts. The beautiful Welsh sister, Nest, has her work cut out at the infirmary, which is also an apothecary, dentist’s surgery and old people’s home. There is no shortage here of women pursuing careers in engineering, and the building project in hand is as grandiose and ecologically damaging as HS2.
There is blessedly little lecturing and moralising in Matrix. It won’t tell us whether Marie’s utopia is a triumph of creativity and love, or a greedy corporation with a CEO high on her own charisma, or an absolutist state, or nothing more than “a queer little English abbey hiding behind its maze”. It may be all those things, but we can still agree with Marie when she reflects that “there is a place here even for the maddest, for the discarded, for the difficult”. Those who love Marie describe “a grandeur of spirit so vast that it takes one’s breath away”. There’s a grand spirit, too, in this novel that makes her.
Book Club Questions
THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY
Marie has a complex, nearly lifelong relationship with Queen Eleanor. When she meets the queen for the first time as a child, what are her impressions?
Describe Carney’s family and role as a husband and a father. How do his personal and professional lives bleed into each other?
THE STORY PLOT
- What are the major turning points in this story?
- How was the pacing/structure (does it keep you engaged and are the stakes constantly escalating)
- Consider how Marie’s attitude toward work shapes life at the abbey, and what kind of change it allows for the community. How does it compare with modern views of work?
- Did it work for you?
- What do you think is the author’s message to readers of Matrix? What did you take away from the book?
SYMBOLISM AND FORESHADOWING
- Let’s talk about symbolism. What symbolism was used in the book?
- Matrix takes place in a twelfth-century abbey and explores the life of a powerful and singular figure, Marie of France, set against a rapidly changing world order. What themes in the book resonated with you as you think about the modern-day challenges we face as a society?
- Use one adjective to describe the writing itself.
- What would you change if you could rewrite Matrix?
- What did you love most about the book?