Although this novel came with excellent reviews, I was not at all sure whether I would be fully engaged with the narrative or the characters. How wrong I was!
Marie de France is a real historical character who left behind her a very small written record. What is known about her is that she was an abbess in the 12th Century, she probably came from France but spent her adult life in England, her poems which are the main source of our understanding of her life, were known at the Court of King Henry II.
Lauren Groff has snatched from the little known and expanded it into a life. An historical novel of the best sort.
In Matrix, Marie is the bastard child of a Plantagenet, possibly Henry himself. Her mother and her numerous aunts took part in the Army of Women which accompanied Louis VII and Eleanor, Queen of France on the abysmally unsuccessful 7th Crusade. The women got as far as Outremer, and then turned back. Marie lost two aunts on that expedition, others died later as did her mother. For two years, she concealed this event and continued to manage their estates. Eventually though, this deception was uncovered, and as an illegitimate girl, she was thrown out by more powerful, male, members of her mother’s family. In the novel, she throws herself on the mercy of her other relative, the Queen Empress Mathilda, by then retired to the Abbey Royal at Fontevraud. Mathilda, seeing no advantage to be got from this ungainly child, forwards her to the English Court.
The novel opens as Marie plods slowly, on horseback, towards the abbey that is to be her home, banished by Eleanor from Henry II’s court and instituted without consultation as Abbess Elect, together with a dowry to sweeten the pill. The abbey in question is on its uppers, damp and ill-maintained, many of the nuns are dying from a coughing sickness and the current Abbess and Prioress are elderly, the promise of substantial funds is welcome even if the child, Marie was still in her teens, is not.
Lauren Groff then weaves a labyrinthine story about Marie, as Abbess, slowly turning around the fortunes of her domain, extending and managing it with the reluctant help, then admiration, of her menagerie of women, some professed and some lay women. As she prospers, so does her influence and ambition, until finally she succeeds is creating an island entirely of women, with a maze surrounding it to prevent the incoming of undesirable males. She has several visions of The Virgin Mary which she interprets as guiding her towards her goals, while she herself increases in power and wealth.
Marie is described as exceptionally tall, gauche and ungainly, but eventually she uses this to her advantage. The sequestered life of her community is not without its sexual encounters, but these moments of lustful pleasure are seen less as sin, more as medicinal relief. In her understanding, Marie begins to see the relationship between Eve, the first woman and Mary, the Mother of God, as the matrix upon which all women should be guided, not as the original sinners but as the vessels that brought the Godhead into the world, and it is this revolutionary message she gives to her nuns.
Whether or not there is any proper evidence for this interpretation of religious belief and practice in the 12th Century, this novel makes the case profoundly for the Sisterhood, the exoneration of our sinful nature as women. Marie’s relationship with all the people in the book including Queen Eleanor, who is her star and first love, is tender, fierce and complex. This is an achievement of the first order; an interesting and electrifying piece of writing, full of passion, ambition and delights.