Matrix by Lauren Groff.
Review by Denise Picton
Marie de France is considered to be that country’s first female poet. Who she actually was is still hotly disputed. Because of her level of literacy, most agree she was a noblewoman. Some believe she was an illegitimate child of one of the Plantagenents. Some believe she was one of Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine’s lovers. And others have theorized that she was Abbess of Shaftsbury.
Lauren Groff imagines her life in ‘Matrix’. She portrays Marie as an ungainly, unattractive giant of a woman, banished at seventeen from Eleanor’s court to take up a place as prioress in an impoverished abbey. Away from the reminders of her mother and aunts, fierce warrior women who fought in the crusades, and from the women she loves, she is at first desperate when she meets the mad, blind Abbess and her starving nuns. Her life is hard.
‘So hungry, the nun’s faces are skulls skinned of flesh in the dark dortoir. There are soups in which meat is boiled and removed to save for future soups. Fingernails the cold blue of the sky.’
Finding relief only when she takes up pen and paper to create her verses, Marie decides to take her fate in her own hands, and begins to build the fortunes of her community, soon also building trust and loyalty with the nuns.
‘…but most half proud to have a woman so tough and bold and warlike and royal to answer to now. For it is a deep and human truth that most souls upon the earth are not at ease unless they find themselves safe in the hands of a force far greater than themselves.’
Having learned at the feet of the clever Queen, she realises that networks and reputation bring power and wealth, and through her visions and extraordinary infrastructure projects, including the creation of a labyrinth around the Abbey to keep out men and all opposition, she eventually has an embarrassment of both.
As the story unfolds we are offered glimpses into the life of the times that provoked shame in the reviewer, who had been heard to complain about the discomfort of a COVID probe up the nose.
‘Nothing can drive out the disease: not praying, not bathing them in holy water, not tying them to their beds, not leaping out from the night to frighten them, not holding them by the ankle in the cold river, not beating them around the head with a yew branch, not burying them crown to tow in warm manure, not hanging them upside down from a high tree and spinning them until they vomit, not drilling a tiny hold through their skulls to let the bad humours out of the brains.’
This is an enthralling story about a powerful woman who protects the lives of women in her community at all costs. Groff’s world-building is intriguing, and the imprint of her Abbess lingers after the story has been told.