Matrix: A Novel

  • By Lauren Groff
  • Riverhead Books
  • 272 pp.

Banished to a nunnery, a headstrong 12th-century girl discovers her strength.

Matrix: A Novel

In her new novel, Lauren Groff brilliantly recreates 12th-century England, a landscape of two cultures owing to its conquest a century earlier by the Norman French. (Remember 1066?)

Matrix narrates the inner life of a fictionally reconstituted “Marie de France.” Scholars disagree on precisely who the actual Marie was, but she makes occasional appearances in the historical record as a poet, fabulist, and religious visionary usually associated with the Anglo-Norman monarch Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The story is set in an impoverished English nunnery recently coming under Norman sway, where 17-year-old Marie is sent by the queen to become an abbess-in-waiting.

Groff’s Marie is a child of rape. Her noble mother is Queen Eleanor’s sister. Disdained for the circumstances of her creation, Marie is also notoriously tall and gangly and anything but well favored when it comes to facial beauty. And she’s resentful of what she sees as her abrupt banishment from the court, the nexus of meaningful life in the realm.

In Marie’s world, both victors and vanquished share a common Catholic culture, but their native languages diverge vastly. The Norman rulers are Francophones, while their subjects speak a tongue — befuddling to Marie — closer to the guttural Anglo-Saxon familiar to us from Beowulf, a language then undergoing a glacial change into a new Frenchified amalgam.

Beyond the linguistic, a rash of other dualities stands out: the exuberant excess of the Norman nobles versus the hardscrabble poverty among the English commoners; the strict vow of chastity versus the human urge for sexual expression among the abbey’s sisters; and the rarely questioned authority of Church and State versus Marie’s independent streak. Most significantly, though, the central opposition in Matrix is a far more consequential one — the gulf between the mindsets and customary roles of women versus those of men.

Like ungainly Marie, this interplay towers over the others, spinning the narrative headlong into a resonant feminist transfiguration. What results is a propulsive, enchanting, and emotionally charged read.

Both the historical and fictional Marie write charming short poems (or “lais”) rooted in the conventionally male-centric trope of courtly love. In them, noble knights, steadfastly and (in large part) chastely loyal to a distant love object, usually a queen, wander dark forests alert to wayward signs and wonders.

Groff upends the underlying sexual tension in this convention, underscoring and exacerbating the unspoken irony. Her Marie dispatches her lovelorn packet of lais to a seemingly unreachable Queen Eleanor, effectively dedicating the collection to her and pledging her eternal love.

Marie’s longing for Eleanor is the fulcrum on which the story turns. Initially ignored by the queen and committed to making her mark at the abbey (and in the world), she essentially acts like a man. Enlisting support from a team of sisterly advisors, Marie introduces an agenda of renewal, building strong relations with the local villagers (who owe the abbey feudal fealty anyway).

She disrupts the division of labor among the sisters to reinvigorate the corporate health of the abbey, a sea change from its old mission of enforcing the spiritual mortification of its inhabitants. She installs a new, more profitable staple crop. She staffs a scriptorium to compete with male monasteries in copying and illuminating manuscripts, undercutting their pricing significantly.

And Marie bans men from the abbey and its environs, creating an impenetrable “labyrinth” in the encircling forests. Later, she defends the abbey through guile and misdirection from the village men’s clumsy assault. The nunnery becomes a thriving island of women in a surrounding sea of conventional male privilege.

In matters of sexuality, Groff brilliantly handles flashes of physical intimacy among her sisters — including Marie’s own occasional moments — with a moving and empathetic touch.

Marie’s 50 years at the abbey sketch out a compelling arc of spiritual growth — a passage from angry ambition to abiding faith, a hagiography of sorts. As its Latinate title hints, Matrix celebrates a maternal journey touchingly parallel to the uplifting spiritual temper of its time: a fresh attention to the feminine via the religious cult of Mary and the conventions of courtly romance.

Of course, uplifting matters have no place amid the clash of arms in the real, male-dominated world. In that light, the ultimate irony in Groff’s utopian sojourn shines through like a signal flare in the distance, both then and now.

Bob Duffy is a Maryland author and reviewer.

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