“Matrix”: the astonishing portrait of Marie de France, medieval nun and poetess, by American writer Lauren Groff

Book review

In her new novel, the American writer Lauren Groff delivers a novelistic portrait of Marie de France, the first woman of letters, free and a feminist fighter before her time. A book carried by a writing of an enthralling richness.

After Les Furies, which recounted the life of a couple in the contemporary world, Lauren Groff transports us with Matrix, her new novel published on January 6 by L’Olivier, to an English abbey in the Middle Ages. In this fictionalized biography of Marie de France, a 12th-century poetess, the American writer paints the portrait of a free-spirited heroine with a temperament as impetuous as it is irreverent.

The Story: Matrix follows the life of Marie de France, the first French poetess known for her collection Les Lais de Marie de France, twelve stories in verse recounting chivalrous adventures and courtly love. From an almost non-existent biography – almost nothing is known about the life of this “bastard” – Lauren Groff invents the life of the one believed to be the natural daughter of Geoffroy V of Anjou, father of Henry II, second husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who became King of England in 1154.

The young Mary lost her mother at the age of twelve, survived alone for two years by hiding the death of her mother and took advantage of this to do her own education. She was then welcomed at the court of Westminster, at the home of her half-brother of royal blood, husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Marie lived happily for a few years, but when she was 17, Eleanor told her that she had been appointed prioress of a royal abbey in the English countryside. “At least we now knew what to do with this strange bastard half-sister of royal blood.

Not very sensitive to the charms of religion, and not at all thrilled by this destiny sealed by the family “for a very long time”, this graceless, unchangeable giant nevertheless has no choice but to accept. Marie leaves the “music, laughter and courtly love” of the court, tears herself away from Eleanor, the object of her passion since childhood, and leaves behind Cécile, whom she has known since birth, and who “until that moment was everything to her, lover, sister, servant, companion of pleasure and only loving soul throughout all England”.

Upon her arrival, Marie discovered an abbey plagued by misery, and nuns “so hungry that their heads were nothing but emaciated skulls in the dark dormitory. Desperate, she starts writing a collection of lais, “translated into the beautiful musical French of the court”, which she intends to send to Eleanor to regain the favor of living at court. But her hopes were in vain. The young woman then decides to relegate her love for Eleanor to the back of her mind, to whom she will remain faithful until death, according to the rules of courtly love. Then she takes firmly in hand the destiny of this moribund abbey. She will become its abbess and will make it a prosperous place, a place of safety for her “sisters”, sheltered from the violence of men.

A crazy female utopia
The writer paints an edifying portrait of Marie, a complex woman, free-thinking, erudite, determined, insubordinate to the diktats imposed by men, by her peers, or even by the times, but also a sensual woman and hypersensitive to the poetry of the world. Through the utopian figure of Marie, the writer evokes timeless struggles for the sharing of wealth, for freedom, for the possibility of building another world against all odds.

In this sixth novel, Lauren Groff deploys a language of extreme richness (let us salute in passing the very beautiful work of translation by Carine Chichereau) to describe the landscapes, the English countryside surveyed by Mary on the back of her old mare, the death of a bird, but also the nuns, their physical appearance, their quirks, their states of mind, or their desires, which are expressed without complex behind the walls of the abbey.

Like Diderot with his Religieuse or Agustin Gomez-Arcos with his Maria Republica, Lauren Groff happily takes on this closed-door setting with strong novelistic potential, here also a pretext for denouncing the excesses of an overwhelming political or religious power. An offbeat meditation on power, Matrix is above all a hymn to literature, to the art of storytelling, “the best way to exist” in the eyes of those we love.

“The first spring she spends at the abbey, Marie plants the apricot pits she stole from the queen’s garden to keep them away from her, they remind her too much of all she has lost. They will have trouble growing, and will be covered with small, sickly leaves. She will feel as if her own life is tied to these trees. She doesn’t know yet if she wants to see them thrive or die.
The pressure of the hierarchy on the nuns is daily, overwhelming. Marie learns to recognize the footsteps of some of the diocesan superiors in the corridors, for they are wearing boots, not the clogs of the women of the abbey, and as soon as she hears them, she leaps up and silently dodges backstage, leaving Emme in her mists, for after all, it is still her, After all, it is still she, the abbess, who has to deal with the demands, the rules, the pressures for money, the endless requests for the nuns to offer their time, their prayers, their efforts, all of which Emme kindly agrees to, and then conveniently forgets to inform Mary. Well, she decides, she’s going to have to train her superiors like dogs and hawks with rewards, but slowly so that they don’t notice anything.” (Matrix, p. 69)