The Not-So-Silent Virgin

In Lauren Groff’s new novel, no man or grave can hold Marie (de France) down.

(The Virgin Reading by Vittore Carpaccio, 1505)

Matrix, by Lauren Groff. Riverhead Books. 260 pp. $28.00.

Within the first pages of Lauren Groff’s Matrix, we discover we are dealing with a rebel. No, worse: a female rebel! “Why should babies be born into sin, why should she pray to invisible forces?” Well, for a medieval character, this fictional substitute for poet Marie de France expounds a lot of radical theological ideas developed in the 20th century. As some may recall from their bible school days, in Genesis, God destroyed humanity’s architectural aspirations in the form of the Tower of Babel because they were trying to attain the heights of heaven. Set in the 12th century Angleterre (England), Matrix follows Marie as she makes her own biblical tower of sorts—in a splendidly sacrilegious way.

A monster of a woman (unattractive, manly, a giantess), Marie comes to an impoverished abbey as a seventeen-year-old girl, discarded from the court of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (her half-sister). But though her exterior may be rough, her interior is beautiful and strange—smart, intelligent, kind, compassionate, ambitious. And once she is settled into her position at the convent, things start to change—the tower begins to be built.

In literature, towers often symbolize isolation (female isolation, imprisonment really, in a phallic structure of stone). Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida, the fairytale Rapunzel, and countless others detail a woman separated from a wicked, masculine world. Groff’s novel follows this setup, but here, there is female agency—control, power even. Abbess Marie allows four-legged beasts to be eaten by the nuns (an act that is against “the Rule” set down by the Church), she manages the land and income accounts, she does all the things women should let men do for them. This abbey will not be her cage, though: it will be a sanctuary from men and their impregnating influences.

At first, Marie wants to show her love and devotion for her Queen and half-sister by writing a book of poems (or lais). Then when that fails to get Eleanor’s attention, she fortifies her heart and her home. By creating a labyrinth to encompass the abbey and by consolidating power therein, she not only makes a haven for her holy sisters, but she also (arrogantly) shows the world woman’s roar—and is, secretly, another effort to gain the notice of. Dually, this labyrinth parallels the abbess’s own attempt to smother her passions, her desires for the flesh of females.

The second change to this classic story structure of captive women is the fact that Marie enjoys the company of women. That is to say—even if she were not a chaste nun—she’d rather seek her pleasures from fellow females than from fellas. Combining this variable with the fact that Marie receives visions of the Virgin Mary makes Matrix marvelously blasphemous. Though the realism, at first, seems a bit faulty (women with power, lesbians in the Middle Ages?), there’s no reason not to believe that this could have happened and been censured by the history books. As we see in Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s historical fiction, My Name is Red, manuscripts can easily be painted over or simply destroyed by the people in positions of power.

Groff, like Madeline Miller (Circe) and Pat Barker (The Silence of the Girls), reimagines the life of women in a historical setting. She mixes domestic duties and tribulations with magical thoughts and mysticism. In prose that is poetic but never overwhelming, Matrix seeks to secure a place for women at Christianity’s not-so-round table and does so by being a rebellious book about love and gender roles. And though what Marie builds—and what Groff simultaneously builds through words—could be burned away by an angry mob, the message of a better future will always remain.

Buy a copy at The Bookshop

Konstantin Rega
A graduate of East Anglia’s renowned Creative Writing MA, Konstantin’s been published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Poetry Salzburg Review,, the Republic of Consciousness Prize (etc.). He contributes to Publisher Weekly and Treblezine.
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