The tale begins with a 17-year-old woman riding “out of the forest alone” into a “place of her living death.” Cast out of privileged society, she approaches the site of her new forced monastic life. Thus, Lauren Groff introduces her readers to “Marie who comes from France.”
Groff’s writing deservedly has garnered much attention, with her last novel, “Fates and Furies,” and her short story collection, “Florida,” both being National Book Award finalists. “Fates and Furies,” in particular, impressed with its focus on the dramatic tradition and the unseen contributions of women in the creative process. Groff’s new novel, “Matrix,” also highlights the writing process but takes readers back in time to the poetry of medieval England. It is a refined compendium of the Middle Ages as seen through the life of the historical figure Marie de France. Like other novels that play with real events, including Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet,” and George Saunders’s “Lincoln in the Bardo,” Groff’s book cleverly extends beyond the written past to imagine other possibilities and to challenge the traditional record.
Groff takes seriously the history with which she engages along with the process of how that history was made — and by whom. The novel chronicles Marie’s life from an isolated, illegitimate child of a noble family, to her expulsion from court, to her changing roles at Shaftesbury Abbey in southern England. While too often it is presumed that only men transcribed medieval manuscripts, Groff shows that women also functioned as scriptrices. In the novel, nuns transcribe pages to earn money for the abbey, but they also creatively edit existing works to suit their purposes. For instance, Marie herself “likes to go down to the scriptorium and change the Latin of the missals and psalters into the feminine, for why not when it is meant to be heard and spoken only by women? She laughs to herself as she does it. Slashing women into the texts feels wicked. It is fun.” This wickedly fun “slashing” is exactly what Groff is doing, adding women into the story, queering the text, and capturing a fuller range of human experience through such amendments.
As readers follow Marie’s journey, they uncover the layers of the titular Latin word “matrix,” which can mean mother, the head of an abbey, a womb, and the mold out of which something is formed. These linguistic imprints remind readers not only of the shifting contours of this story but also of Groff’s skill as a writer. “Matrix” captures the dynamism of the 12th-century Renaissance in Europe, including its political intrigue, its encounters with other cultures, and its scientific and literary achievements — all while Marie never travels more than 100 miles from her new home at the abbey.
Groff’s worldbuilding offers a sweeping backdrop of crusades, plagues, religious visions, and social stratification to inform this tale of women’s resistance, desire, and power. We know strikingly little about the real Marie de France, who was the author of several literary works, including most famously a set of short poems on love and chivalry, as well as a collection of moralized fables, a translation of a religious work on purgatory, and a life of Saint Audrey. Marie the author may or may not have been the same person as the Marie who became abbess of Shaftesbury, but Groff, employing typical feminist notions of recovery work and doing her own “slashing” of history, seizes upon the possibility left by this gap to celebrate a real woman writer.
Those familiar with medieval literature and history will be delighted by Groff’s references to tales of the otherworldly Mélusine and Marie’s stories, to works by Andreas Capellanus and Ovid, and to the schemes of the Plantagenets and the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine. “Matrix,” however, is far more than a treat for history buffs. Groff gives us a fully realized Marie, driven by her passions, surrounded by other women with their own talents and shortcomings. Along the way, Marie has romantic relationships with women, makes the nuns build a defensive labyrinth around the abbey, and eventually leads the nuns into battle. The novel also highlights the importance of women in Christianity, reaching back to Eve, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. Even Marie’s vexed relationship with Eleanor, the Queen of England, becomes a major structural parallel. These two seemingly different women both gain power and yet are still contained by patriarchal authority — one in a convent, the other at times in a prison — adding further literary panache to this entertaining tale.
All in all, Groff’s novel encompasses more than the life of the real or the hypothetical Marie. Instead, it reveals the capacity of writing to challenge standard accounts of history as a way of questioning what we know. In “Matrix,” this is metaphorized through one of the novel’s nuns, who “paints the manuscript’s illustrations with wild imaginations — perfect devils in blue, martyrs dying in great gouts of blood.” This common medieval practice of marginalia as a space for the delightful, the grotesque, and the zany is enchantingly Groff’s as well. By utilizing the margins of history to depict the disempowered and forgotten, she writes a creative, intelligent work that will last.
Abby Manzella is the author of “Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacements.” Lee Manion is the author of “Narrating the Crusades: Loss and Recovery in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature.”
Riverhead, 272 pages, $28