In Matrix, Lauren Groff is exploring and exploiting all the complicated implications of its title, including one of the word’s archaic meanings as womb and, by extension, mother.
The central character, Marie, becomes the mother almost by accident to a colony of women in 12th Century Britain as powerful abbess, artist, crafter, farmer and engineer.
Loosely based on Marie de France, medieval poet and scholar, Marie is 17 when she is cast out of the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, as “unmarriageable”, partly due to her great height and awkwardness, and partly to her obstinate independence, scholarly aptitude and questionable female relatives.
Despite this breach in their relationship, Eleanor remains at the heart of Marie’s emotional life and inspires her academic, artistic, spiritual and social endeavours. She writes her famous poems, the the Breton Lais, to impress Eleanor, and transforms the destitute abbey of which she eventually takes charge, into a sumptuous retreat fit for a retiring monarch, maintaining the desperate hope throughout her life that Eleanor will abide there with her.
Marie’s faith in God develops over time, but her faith in women remains steadfast. Her love for her sisters transforms the abbey from the impoverished backwater at which she arrives as a dispossessed 17-year-old to a thriving centre of spiritual transformation by the end of the novel.
Marie accomplishes this, according to Groff, through her spectacular personal abilities, but also, through love. Her community prospers because Marie, as opposed to her predecessor, gives roles to people that their skills and interests will suit, rather than as punishments.
Marie accepts, loves, champions and protects those she leads and lives with, but is also capable of manipulative machinations when necessary to protect the greater good of the abbey. This includes the great feat of building an extensive labyrinth that surrounds the buildings and its farm, simultaneously safeguarding the nuns and their adherents from would-be attackers and further isolating them from the world at large, which of course, is just what Marie wants.
Matrix is a fantastic tale of female community and the divine feminine.