by Jim McKeown
Lauren Groff is an American writer, who has published two short-story collections and four novels, including Fates and Furies (2015), Florida (2018), and Matrix (2021). In a starred review, Publishers Weekly praised Matrix’s “boldly original narrative” and Groff’s “transcendent prose and vividly described settings” for bringing to life “historic events, from the Crusades to the papal interdict of 1208.” Kirkus Reviews added, “Groff’s trademarkworthy sentences bring vivid buoyancy to a magisterial story.”
Lauren Groff is a two-time National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author. She has won the Story Prize, been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her work regularly appears in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. She was named one of Granta’s 2017 Best Young American Novelists. Her latest book is Matrix, and this terrific novel demonstrates the raw power of female creativity in a corrupted world.
The story begins with Marie, an outcast from the court of Queen Eleanor of Aquitane, who wants to get rid of her by condemning her to a wretched abbey:
She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old, in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France.
It is 1158 and the world bears the weariness of late Lent. Soon it will be Easter, which arrives early this year. In the fields, the seeds uncurl in the dark cold soil, ready to punch into the freer air. She sees for the first time the abbey, pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley, the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall. Most of the year this place is emerald and sapphire, bursting under dampness, thick with sheep and chaffinches and newts, delicate mushrooms poking from the rich soil, but now in late winter, all is gray and full of shadows.
I will now insert a few minor windows into Marie’s life when she hears her fate:
When Marie’s mouth could move, she said, thickly, that she was grateful to the queen for the radiance of her attention, but oh no she could not be a nun, she was unworthy, and besides she had no godly vocation whatsoever in any way, at all.
And it was true, the religion that she was raised in had always seemed vaguely foolish to her, if rich with mystery and ceremony, for why should babies be born into sin, why should she pray to invisible forces, why would god be a trinity, 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?
As a very young woman, Marie learned at the feet of the queen, before being sent away:
Marie knew how to run a large estate, she could write in four languages, she could keep account books, she did all this so admirably after her mother died, even though still a tender little maiden, and what’s more she did it so well that she fooled the whole world into thinking for two years that she was her own dead mother.
Her life changes greatly at the abbey:
Marie descends the night stairs. She feels as though she has stepped from a blazing day into a dark room. She sees nothing around her but ghost fragments of the brightness of what she has lost.
Wevua shoves Marie down on the bench and sits beside her. … Marie steals a look at this girl who has bulging eyes and protuberant front teeth; this she will later discover is Swan-neck, and the novice on her other side is little Ruth, whose eyes are always telling a small joke. Both will become Marie’s deep friends.
The shadows at the edge of the chapel change shape threateningly in Marie’s fatigue.
She thinks back to life at court:
… the ladies voices are low and happy and the lutes begin to play in the corner, two voices weaving together in sad song of chivalric love, and she hears the pattern in this new thrilling kind of loving, sees it unfurling like cloth in the air: marriage is no excuse for not loving, one who is not jealous does not love, no one can be bound by two loves, love is always growing or diminishing, easy attainment of love is contemptible but impossible attainment makes it precious.
(As we will see, love is widely practiced among the nuns.)
The moment fades. And once again she is among the ghosts and shadows, the wind playing at the eaves of the building, and even the ancient walls of this abbey so poor they seem resigned to the sickness and hunger they clasp within them.
The next day, the abbess dictates a letter to the queen asking for Marie’s dowry:
The abbess smiles in satisfaction when Marie reads the letter back and says with delighted surprise how precise Marie is at dictation, she repeated the abbess’s letter to the very word.
Word of the message to the queen spreads though the village, and later that day, the nuns whisper among themselves about Marie:
Someone is saying now, Oh there was a broom flower tucked behind the helmet’s visor and this is how the poor violated maiden’s mother knew who had raped her daughter; and with this, Marie knows with a shock of cold that they are speaking of her own mother; of the circumstances of Marie’s birth. Oh yes, the voices said, warming up, just a maiden of only thirteen, but tall and lovely and out in the fields innocent one warm day, making a poppy wreath and dreaming, when she heard a rattle of metal, and before she could run she was scooped up to the pommel by her hair, for you see the army was camped not far away, and the girl was so tempting just out there in the field all alone. And when the girl staggered back to the château, and told what she remembered, only the broom flower, her mother was so enraged she took the family sword and rode to camp and made a terrible uproar. A broom flower is the Planta Genêt, you see, Plantagenet. Descendants, by the way, of Mélusine, fairy queen who lived among the humans with her children until she was spied upon in the bath with her tail unfurled; then she flew through the window, abandoning forever. And the issue of the Plantagenet violation after nine months was of course our new prioress Marie. Thus, you see, this is how our new prioress finds herself a bastardess half sister to the crown. By the horrid stain of rape. How strange it is to have royal blood, yet mixed with such ignominy!
Matrix, by Lauren Groff, is full of stories that display the power of women in a world dominated by men. Despite the rumors, the visions, intrigues, and the lies, Marie de France overcomes all the difficulties she faced, an exception in the medieval world she came to dominate.
Jim McKeown, a lifelong voracious reader and English professor who recently retired from McLennan Community College, hosts the weekly book review program Likely Stories on KWBU, Waco’s NPR station.
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