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 Partiz, Legend 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.