Wimple Pleasures

Matrix BY Lauren Groff. New York: Riverhead. 272 pages. $28.

The cover of Matrix

THEY APPEAR TO HER in the middle of the woods. Marie, the heroine of Lauren Groff’s novel Matrix (Riverhead, $28), is hard at work with her nuns building a labyrinth that will make their twelfth-century English convent impenetrable to intruders, when she has a vision. “I fell to my knees, for standing in the place where the road was to be made in the forest were two women whose holiness shone so brightly their radiance made me hide my face from them.” It is the Virgin Mary, together with Eve, the Biblical first woman. They bear matching wounds. On Mary’s chest, “there bled a wound large and open and shining in gold, and this was the wound of her maternal sorrow.” And on Eve’s forehead “was shining in rubies the wound made by the staff of the angel who had chased her from the first garden.” The women smile benevolently at Marie; then they kiss.

Marie understands her vision as a divine message from the Virgin. (In Matrix, Mary is the primary Christian god; Jesus doesn’t enter into it.) She knows immediately what it means: Eleanor of Aquitaine, her queen, rival, role model, and love, is coming to visit. Years earlier, Eleanor had exiled her from the Westminster court, unnerved by Marie’s fixation on her and nervous about the girl’s status as an illegitimate half-sister to the king. When Marie arrived at the abbey, a heartbroken teenager, her devotion to the beguiling and enigmatic queen was her single-minded purpose. The teenage Marie sends Eleanor a series of poems, composed in a kind of lovelorn fever, hoping to win back a place at court. But when these receive no reply, she takes stock of her surroundings. The convent is dilapidated and deep in debt; nuns are dying one by one of plague and starvation. No one is coming to rescue her: if she wants a better life, she will have to build it herself. Marie realizes that even if she can’t win the queen’s affection, she has an opportunity to make herself worthy of it.

By the time Eleanor comes to visit, years later, Marie has assumed control of the convent, and presides over a vast and thriving clerical kingdom. As prioress and then abbess, Marie revives the abbey in a feat of indomitable will. She shows up in the early hours of the morning, armed and mounted on horseback, to collect the rents from tenants who are in arrears. She has her nuns begin copying manuscripts for pay—frowned-upon work for women, but it brings in much more revenue than any of their other endeavors. She takes in the daughters of rich families, pocketing money to educate young girls who she then seeds as spies in the noble houses they marry into. Wealth accumulates, and so does influence.

Groff presents Marie’s instinct for politics as a form of art. Much of Matrix takes place inside Marie’s mind, watching as she expands the abbey’s holdings, consolidates power, and outmaneuvers those who would stand in her way. Groff’s prose has the formality and cadence associated with historical fiction, but she inserts playfulness and color into her narrative, showing charming, occasionally silly vignettes of daily life that give the abbey a distinctive realism. One of the novel’s pleasures is its depiction of Marie’s organizational skills. Religious convention holds that labor should be unpleasant, but Marie defiantly puts the nuns to work doing what they love. A gruff subprioress, Goda, has little patience for people but a great love of animals; she’s put in charge of the livestock. An insane nun, Gytha, has only a tenuous grip on reality, but possesses a vivid inner life; she’s tasked with illustrating the manuscripts that the nuns copy, painting blue people and wild holy beasts in the margins. The outside world would throw such women away, but Marie chooses to cultivate them instead. The result is that under her stewardship, the abbey becomes rich, and a haven for female talent.

Illuminated manuscript detail of Marie de France, 1285–1292. National Library of France.
Illuminated manuscript detail of Marie de France, 1285–1292. National Library of France.

The growth of the abbey is accomplished not only through maternal benevolence but also by habitual intimidation, strategic deceit, and the occasional sabotage of rivals. When Marie begins to experience religious visions from the Virgin, the divine mother tells her to amass wealth and land, to encourage women’s literacy, and to keep the abbey insulated from outsiders. It’s not always easy to tell where divine revelation ends and Marie’s own motives begin. This seems true to history: as a mystic, Marie is not unique in having visions that conveniently lend divine authority to her personal ambitions. It is the Virgin Mary who tells Marie to build a labyrinth around the abbey, and when it is complete it serves as protection, keeping the sinister and jealous outside world at bay. But it also keeps the nuns inside, under Marie’s control.

In Marie’s world, as in ours, religion is both a way to find sincere spiritual nourishment and an ideological arena through which to filter propaganda and jostle for power. And then, as now, the celibacy vows of Catholic clergy are more of a pretext or aspiration than a practiced reality. Marie’s is not a sexless life. She grows up maintaining a sexual relationship with her brassy servant girl, Cecily. At the convent, she makes regular visits to the nurse, a Welsh woman named Nest, who serviceably fucks the nuns under the guise of “release of humors.” Marie’s passionate admiration for Eleanor of Aquitaine is not chaste, and the letters she exchanges with the queen over the course of her career are written with the calculus and codes of emails to a longed-for ex.

At least on the surface, Marie’s passion for Eleanor is unreciprocated. But the tradition of courtly love flourished in Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court, and this pattern is at play in Marie’s relationship with the queen. In courtly love, the inaccessibility of the beloved and the perpetual non-consummation of the union are part of the point. By becoming an object of Marie’s passionate devotion, Eleanor serves as motivation for the abbess to cultivate her own capacity for greatness. Everything Marie builds at the abbey, she builds in part to glorify and vindicate her queen. Godly devotion, personal glory, impressing a girl—these motives mix in Marie’s mind, making her ambition simultaneously holy and vulgar.

Something about the setting of Groff’s novel makes its themes more palatable. It’s hard to say whether a story about a woman’s search for power could successfully depict a figure so committed to her own intellect as Marie if she inhabited the modern day. On the page, in medieval England, it is easy to appreciate Marie’s gifts. But in our own time, talented women’s flaws tend to balloon in our minds, and their failures take on outsize moral valence. “Double standards” is one name for this, but it might be more precise to say that there is something especially unnerving about the human frailty of smart women, something that makes their ordinary vanity and selfishness seem more damning than the ordinary vanity and selfishness of smart men.

In interviews, Groff has said that she began writing Matrix in part because she “wanted to get as far away from Trump’s America as possible.” But in Marie’s virtuosity and cunning, in her lies and brilliance and scheming struggle against a hostile world, it is hard not to see the traces of some of the powerful women whom the Trump era defeated. This sublimation of politics into art is part of what gives Matrix its power. The modern girlboss is often presented as a monster of entitlement and egoism. But Groff’s Marie offers a more human and complicated vision of an intelligent woman, one who is driven by both a spiritual quest for god and an earthly quest for love. Female talent, female ambition—these things are easy to praise in theory, easy to valorize in fiction. But they are much harder to cope with in life.

Marie’s vision of the Virgin Mary and Eve comes about halfway through the novel. It is not her first religious ecstasy, and it will not be her last. But the vision illustrates Marie’s keen feminist insight, showing as needless and false the divide that makes some women matrons and others temptresses, some virgins and some whores. As Mary and Eve embrace, “they showed me that the war so often vaunted between them was a falsity created by the serpent to sow division and strife and unhappiness in the world.” The truth is that these women are not enemies, but complements. “Without the flaw of Eve,” Marie realizes, “there could be no purity of Mary.”

On one level, the vision represents Marie herself, the virginal nun, and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose sexuality and cunning have made her an object of awe and contempt throughout Europe. But the two women also represent the dueling impulses within Marie’s soul: between piety and pride, service and self-aggrandizement. In many ways, their very combination is her genius: it is Marie’s comfort with power and her willingness to defy others in the service of her aims that allow her to build something great out of the abbey. Matrix asks: What if this, too, is a kind of prayer?

Moira Donegan is a writer and feminist in New York City.