Matrix | Lauren Groff #USAfiction

She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old, in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France.

I was curious to find out how someone who lives in Gainesville, Florida came to write a book about nuns living in an impoverished abbey in rural England in the 12th century. Of course, authors write about places they do not live in, have never lived in or even been to, all the time. But Matrix felt so very grounded in its Englishness and setting, that I decided to dig deeper.

It was a quick, easy dig.

The first interview I found was one in The Guardian on the 12th September 2021 with Johanna Thomas-Corr, where Groff explained that she had,

studied French and English in college and for a while I thought I wanted to be a medievalist. I love chivalric romances and I love that period.

In fact, Groff has spent decades thinking about and researching Marie de France and her poetry, or “lais” as they are called in French. Marie is considered to be the first female poet to write in the French language. Although very little is known about her, including her name, she is believed to have been born in France, then lived most of her life in England. Her literary dates are roughly 1160 to 1215. Her name comes from a line in one of her lais: “Marie ai num, si sui de France | My name is Marie, and I am from France.

Marie of France also translated Aesop’s Fables from Middle English into Anglo-Norman French and wrote Espurgatoire seint PartizLegend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick, translated from a Latin text. Her writing indicates that she was highly educated and multilingual and therefore, most likely of noble birth. It is quite possible that she was the illegitimate daughter of a king.

Her lais (according to wikipedia) are said to have had a huge impact on the literary world at the time. In fact “they were considered to be a new literary technique derived from classical rhetoric and imbued with such detail that they became a new form of art.” Marie’s poems were full of imagery and usually described courtly love and love triangles involving loss and adventure. At times magic and the fairy realm crept into her poems (see Poetry in Translation).

Marie dedicated her lais to a “noble king”, which most historians presume to be Henry II. In her book, Groff has her fictional Marie write poems for Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II’s wife, instead.

I include all this background information here, because I had no idea whatsoever about any of this as I read the book, and I wish I had. Not because it would have made any difference to my understanding or enjoyment of the story, but I would have appreciated the literary fictions and enhancements of the historical record, if I had known they existed. Even Groff’s very first sentence (above) would have meant more, if I had known what I know now.

Early on, references to Queen Eleanor had me Duck, duck, going to see if Marie was a real person too. Henry II had many illegitimate children but only two of the boys are ever mentioned by name. However, his dates did not match. So I left it at that, believing that Marie was a fictional construct of Groff’s.

The story begins in 1158 when Marie is seventeen. References are made to her illegitamte status and Groff has her claim a half-sibling relationship with the royal court at Westminster. I misread this, and thought that Marie was a half-sister of Eleanor.

It was only when I was reading the various interviews and articles about Groff after I finished the book, that I realised that, one, Marie of France was a real person. And two, that Henry II’s father, Geoffrey Plantagenet was most likely her father, and that her half-brother was Henry. Right at the bottom of Geoffrey’s wikipedia page it lists his children, legitimate and illegitimate. The last one is Mary who became a nun and Abbess at Shaftesbury and ‘who may have been’ the poet Marie of France. If only I had kept on digging!

Groff revealed that she had had a fervent, passionate, religious childhood that has evolved into a more secular adulthood. This allows her to appreciate the rich literary traditions of religious life and ritual, with some healthy scepticism, something that shone through on every page of the Matrix.

A book about nuns in an Abbey is not a book I would normally gravitate towards, but a friend’s strong recommendation brought Matrix to my attention last year. I’m glad I listened.

Matrix is so much more than a nuns-in-the-abbey story. It is oozing with feminine power, passion and devotion. Groff’s storytelling is a delight, paying homage to the poetry of Marie with beautiful phrasing and pleasing imagery. And there is a labyrinth! It is historical fiction at it’s very best – the past shining a light on our present world.

For a long time, Groff was avidly against writing historical fiction, seeing it as “literary tourism”. But then she realised she could use it as a tool to talk about the contemporary world.

Penguin.co.uk | Features | Kate Wyver | 8th November 2021
Title: Matrix
Author: Lauren Groff
Cover Design: Henry Petrides, leaves adapted from 'Windswept' by Elana Gabrielle, figures by Joe McLaren
ISBN: 9781785151910
Imprint: Hutchinson Heinemann
Published: 14th September 2021
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 260
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

12 thoughts on “Matrix | Lauren Groff #USAfiction

  1. Hi Brona! I much enjoyed your excellent review and very useful background info. I’ve had a copy of Matrix for months but somehow can’t quite bring myself to get started. I don’t quite understand why as I think Lauren Groff is enormously talented and I like what I’ve read of her work (Fates & Furies; Arcadia; a short story or two). I think I’ve been put off by the sci-fi title (I know, it refers to the head of a convent, not Neo but . . . can’t quite shake the association) and the fact the setting is such a departure for Groff (I appreciated your discussion on this point). The reviews, including yours,have been so good, however, I’ll definitely get to it!

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    1. Unlike you, I had not read any of Groff’s previous works, and like you, I kept thinking it was going to morph into a sci-fi story thanks to the second meaning of the title! Historical fiction is my go-to genre, so I’m not sure I will read her more contemporary stories. But with my work, you just never know!!

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  2. I must read Lauren Groff as people seem to like her. I love that you checked into her knowledge. I’m not big into reading about the middle ages, but good writing is good writing, and if it’s made relevant to me, I can be in.

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    1. There aren’t many historical periods I won’t give a try Sue, but then I studied both Ancient AND Modern history at school (I was the only one who chose the double history option). And I read all the texts we were given for both courses, cover to cover. My love for Thucydides and Herodotus date from this time. My Year 7 history teacher was a particularly uninspiring man and nearly turned me off medieval history, but I have come back to it on my own over the years.

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      1. Makes sense, Brona. I only did Modern History as I never was interested in Ancient History. I’m fascinated that you were the only one at your school. My best friend at high school did both , and I think a couple of other girls did, and my sister (2 years younger) and brother (6 years younger) did both too. It sounds like history was perhaps more popular – or, we had fewer choices? – in my day than yours. BTW, I would have been interested in Mediaeval history more than Ancient. Amazing – well, not really, I suppose, the impact teachers can have!

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        1. My high school was in a small country town. Not many of us went onto Yr 11 and 12 and the sciences were the most popular courses, esp Ag and biology. My Ancient History class only had about ten students and I surprised myself by how much I loved it.

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  3. What an interesting review, Brona, you have made me keen to read this novel now, whereas I previously would not have picked it up as I tend to steer away from American fiction having existed on a steady diet of it until I was about 30! I’m not a history buff, but I do quite like novels about nuns for some weird reason. I think it’s the whole idea of people living their lives guided by faith because I don’t understand faith and am intrigued by those who rationalise it in the face of reason and logic.

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    1. Matrix doesn’t feel like an American novel at all Kim with it’s English Abbey and royal court, although it does contain some modern concepts. So many women became nuns for all sorts of reason back then, and faith wasn’t always the highest point on the list.

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  4. I thought this was engaging throughout and I read through the books of hers I’d missed before reading it, so it was a real delight to see a lot of parallels and echoes with earlier stories and novels even though the descriptions would make you think they’re all very different books. There are so many different ways to take that title…I’m embarrassed to admit that I never once thought about the movie. Heheh

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