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.