In this epic novel Lauren Groff imaginatively brings alive in historical fiction the lives of two powerful women who actually lived in early Medieval England and France. When reading the intensely intimate and powerful narrative told from the perspective of Marie, I kept wondering at the historical accuracy and the sheer wondrous unusual nature of bringing powerful Medieval women’s thoughts, ambitions, fears and intimacies to center stage.
It turns out that Groff has drawn the two main characters, Marie and Eleanor, from history. Marie de France, the nom de plume of a well know poet and scholar, was born in France but lived in England during the late 12th century. Her popular work was known at the royal court of King Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Marie de France’s romantic narrative poetry focused on love that causes suffering, often by those involved adulterous relationships or on the fringes of society, and generally ends in grief. In rebellion against the Church, Marie de France rejected the idea of virginal love or marriage., and instead focused on female strength and power. Interestingly, she also was the first person translated Aesop’s fables into English.
Eleanor of Aquitaine was both Queen of France married to King Louis VII and then Queen of England in a subsequent marriage to King Henry II. Heir to rulers in Southwestern France, she proved the wealthiest and most powerful women in the high Middle Ages. Between her two marriages, Eleanor had ten children and lived until age 82, ultimately outliving all but two. Reports of the time portrayed Eleanor as beautiful, high-spirited, extroverted, intelligent, and strong-willed. Gossipy reports circulated at the time of her immodest dress and her leading a campaign fought by soldiers from her court during the Crusades. Like the plot in Matrix, Eleanor did much of the travel described, including a period of imprisonment for supporting her son in a rebellion against his King father and dying in an abbey.
Matrix, the book’s title, seems to stem from the old entomology of the word in Middle English from Latin, meaning a breeding female, and later womb. It shares this origin from mater and matr- ‘mother’- in essence being maternal. And Matrix centers around two radically different versions of being a mother: Eleanor politically embroiled with her large brood of children and Marie rising up to become the Mother of the Abbey who saves the day to better the lives of women under her care as Abbess.
In Groff’s hands, a complex fable of suffering from love, what it means to be maternal, and women taking power from traditionalist men unspools. Marie stems from royal lineage, but tragically that royal connection stems from the rape of her mother, who has died. After managing her family affairs for a couple years. she gets rescued into Eleanor’s court- a tall, gangly, gawky girl. Marie has an immense crush on Eleanor and eventually gets dismissed by Eleanor and sent at age 17 to take on the role of abbess in a run-down, poverty-stricken abbey of nuns in England. And yet she never gives up her yearning for beautiful Eleanor, with whom she keeps up a lifelong correspondence.
Marie transforms herself from exiled victim to builder of a powerful community of nuns who stand on their own without manipulation from either the Church or royalty. Marie draws on the past of managing her family estate, and on radiant holy visions she believes come to her from the Virgin Mary. She starts collecting rent owed from the Abbey’s landholders, she builds up a group of nuns with occupational specialties from blacksmiths to farmers to weavers to healers. She builds an impenetrable labyrinth with a secret direct passage that only the nuns know to keep out interlopers. She establishes a scriptorium with writers, translators and artiest. She dams up a nearby lake on royal property to ensure a constant water supply. She alternatively fights and indulgences her sexual attraction to women. She decides she can stand in for the priests- and grab back power from the church for women to give the sacrament and hear confessions. At every turn, she fiercely keeps at bay power-hungry priests and violent men.
And with this comes a transcendence of language and poetic writing from Groff- as inspirational as the original poetry crafted by Marie de France to fight the confining strictures of what Medieval France and England forced upon its women.
And when at last Marie’s power and life ebbs, you sit in reverential silence closing the book and hearing the continuing echoes of women’s voices lost to history.