It is 1158. Seventeen year old Marie is on her way to what amounts to exile: an abbey far away from the court she knows and the woman she is tentatively, intoxicatingly in love with.
In the vogue of rewritten history comes the new novel from Lauren Groff. Matrix chronicles the life of Medieval French poet Marie de France in her new, exiled life as prioress and then abbess of an unnamed abbey in ‘muddy Angleterre’. The anonymity works well: within the confines of the abbey, Groff is as free as Marie to create a life for a poet about whom we know nearly nothing.
The real Marie de France lived (probably) between 1160 and 1215, and can be credited with popularising the Breton lai, or romance, for which she is most known. She worked largely, we assume, in England, and is considered the first woman to write Francophone verse, producing also a translation of Aesop’s fables, Espurgatoire seint Partiz, or, the Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick, and, perhaps, a saint’s life, The Life of Saint Audrey. The Lais of Marie de France are inscribed with the epithet from which we take her name – ‘Marie ai num, si sui de France’, which translates as ‘my name is Marie, and I am from France’. Quite dry earth, then, to grow a book on.
Groff does this magnificently: from these few small details, she weaves an entire world for this woman. The insubstantiality of the knowledge we have about Marie is suspended; replaced with breathy, dreamy prose that mirrors the cloisters in which she finds herself. As Marie grows, so does the architecture around her: both the abbey she builds and the novel that Groff constructs. It is not without reason that we are continually reminded of the gargantuan size of our heroine; the attempt to imagine her life that Groff attempts is equally large.
This is part of Groff’s broader project: Matrix’s relevance extends beyond the life of its heroine, encompassing a wider discussion about the parameters of femininity, sexuality and religion. The envelope certainly slides, if it is not pushed. Marie’s feelings expand beyond modern-day acceptability, and if she does not step over the line into the remit of inappropriacy, she certainly dallies with it. Groff manages this, however, with characteristic delicacy. In less agile hands, Marie’s feelings for the much older Eleanor of Acquitaine There are moments where our modern-day sensibilities are perhaps not entirely enamoured by our heroine, but she is always formidable, she is constantly there – a force to be reckoned with, pushing expectations of both her own time and our own.
In the creation of historical fiction, the line between the two genres is very, very thin. Groff touches only briefly on the cornerstones that we do recognise: the lai are kept strictly personal, a paragraph given to them at most, an extension of the forbidden love Marie holds for Eleanor of Acquitaine, wife of Henry II and the woman responsible for her banishment. While large elements of the narrative are fictitious, the ghosts of Marie’s lais linger in the structure of Groff’s prose. The tricolonic structure, the rhythmic, verse-like patterns, the wry conclusions to a paragraph – Marie’s generic legacy lives on beyond the confines of a medieval literature curriculum. Groff is also incredibly well researched – her details, while beautiful at surface level, reward deeper knowledge of the period: the discussion of the Virgin Mary/Eve opposition, a strong current of medieval philosophy, are a highlight, as are the references to a tripartite, or singular God, which echo the work of Peter Abelard. The light and fire imagery the novel sustains also has its grounding in medieval spiritual writing, echoing Hildegard of Bingen’s experience of ‘the living light’ in her own visions. Groff extends it – heat here does not just evoke the language of medieval visionary work, but encompasses female desire, song, menopause, human contact.
Interesting, then, that Groff includes the word ‘queer’ to describe Marie, a term not in common parlance until two centuries after the novel’s setting. As a nod to the fictional elements of the book, it works well. It acts as an unsettler, a reminder that here is a novel that is seeking to manipulate the boundaries between fiction and reality, knowledge and imagination. It reminds us that here is a woman of whom we know little – who is ripe for fictionalising and updating to our own, more modern purposes. A particularly meticulous history scholar might quibble, but as Groff says, ‘the life of the abbey is the dream. The set of poems she is writing is the world’.
Image: Mario La Pergola via Unsplash