The 12th-century poet we know as Marie de France was, scholars argue, the greatest writer of short fiction before Boccaccio and Chaucer. Her lais – tantalisingly short romances written in octosyllabic couplets – are thought to rival the best that those great men had to offer. But herein lies the difference: Marie was a woman with all the disadvantages and ignominy her sex had to offer in that most patriarchal of societies, the court of the middle-ages. Marie, no fool, knew this. Her oft-quoted lai says as much: “Whoever believes in a man is very foolish.”
Lauren Groff, the much-feted American author of Fates and Furies (Barack Obama, no less, chose it as his favourite book of 2015), aims her writerly arrow at Marie de France with much the same feminist vim that she has displayed elsewhere in her work. Woman, lover, poet: Marie is offered up to us in Groff’s Matrix in that order. As someone who was forced to read Marie de France’s lais in school, I don’t remember any mention of Sapphic longings, but rather long hours spent scanning the couplets as the snow fell on the New England campus outside. However – and herein lies Groff’s trump card – there is so little extant scholarship on Marie’s life, that Groff is at liberty to play musical chairs with the details. The result is novelistic if not biographical. How much this matters depends on your ability to suspend fact for fiction.
Is it readable? Yes, certainly. The year is 1158 and Marie, bastardess sibling of the crown and “great clumsy lunk” ill-befits the court of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. As such, she is exiled to a nunnery, that well-known repository for unmarriageable women. Marie, we are told, is not devout: “the religion she was raised in had always seemed vaguely foolish to her … for why should she pray to the invisible forces, why would God be a trinity, why would 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?” Neither beautiful nor holy, Marie can, however, run an estate, write in four languages and settle the accounts. The nunnery, a “dark and piteous place” near what we presume must be Lincolnshire, is surrounded by fresh graves, its former inhabitants the sorry victims of a “strange disease that made the flesh of the sufferers blue as they drowned in their own lungs”. If any of this sounds strangely prescient of our pandemic era – the cloistered life, the strange illness, the bewildering instructions – that is what Groff intends.
From an unprepossessing start, a series of Marian apparitions guide Marie to realising her vocation, one which is altogether more commercial than holy. With an army of workers, Marie transforms the Abbey from failing enterprise to flourishing mini-Vatican.
Avoiding all the diktats of the “great net made by her sex”, Marie guides the nuns to prosperity. In what feels like a somewhat indulgent 21st-century appropriation of female power, Marie builds a labyrinth-like structure around the Abbey itself, which is as aggressive as it is protective. Similarly, the creation of a scriptorium in which the nuns may triumph at the scholarly work intended for men, asks us to believe in the “sisters doing it for themselves” line a little too obviously. If women can rewrite the documents of formerly patriarchal power, what might happen, Groff dares to wonder.
But dare as she might, Groff struggled to convince me of the likelihood of a female utopia (a topic approached in her previous novel Arcadia) within the strictures of 12th-century Roman Catholicism. Men, those evil heralds whose only aim is to stifle womenfolk, are given scant, if no, representation. Time and again throughout what is a readable narrative, the sense of historical accuracy (or even likelihood) irked, making the meticulous work of Groff’s descriptions of the miraculous “in the space of an exhale, all the world goes quiet” strangely ill-fitting.
Perhaps, the answer to these inconsistencies is in the title. A matrix is “something from which something else originates, develops, or takes form”. Its secondary definition is of a mould from which a relief is made. The latter, assuming the strange and messy business of simulacrum, makes more sense. Somewhere, from the mould of Marie de France’s life, Groff has made a relief, the imprimatur of her own modern hands. Read thus, it makes sense.
Arabella Byrne is a freelance journalist and writer for the Spectator and The Critic. She is writing a novel based on the Great War diaries of French Catholic writer Jacques Riviere.
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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