“It was Marie’s unbeauty that was the making of her.”

Brown Baggers book club met on Thursday, April 20 to discuss Matrix by Lauren Groff. We picked this in part because of the far-away feeling of the 12th century. Historically this group has read a fair amount of WWII literature, so this promised to be something very different – a young woman sent to become the new prioress of a distressed abbey, its nuns sick and suffering. Of course, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett still enjoys the #3 spot on Goodreads Best Historical Fiction list, so if you’re a reader already acclimated to the 12th century through that book, you’ll still want to dive into Matrix for the mystical tone, complex writing style, and feminist, character-driven storyline, even if not for the novelty of the time period. Anyone interested in female friendship, religious life, poverty and power, and social change, may enjoy this book. 

Our discussion revolved around two characters: Marie and Eleanor. Both are real historical figures (see here and here), but our group was in agreement that the written characters felt more like fictionalized compilations of many different types. In this novel, Marie is born illegitimately from a long line of women warriors and crusaders, and when her mother dies, she is sent to live in the courts of Eleanor. Eleanor then sends her to become the prioress, thus setting into motion Marie’s acquisition and accumulation of power and ambition. 

The most interesting moments of discussion tend to come when we discover we’ve interpreted the text in different ways. In this book, there was disagreement over Marie’s visions and sexual orientation. Disregarding our own beliefs regarding religious visions, the text itself clearly leaves enough openness around Marie’s growing divine vocation, because while some read the visions as genuine truth, others interpreted the visions as a way for Marie to manipulate the community to maintain a tight grip of control. Others read the visions as something in between – perhaps naive self-delusion from Marie, or real visions but subconsciously manifested, not from God. Regarding the homosexual sexual orientation of Marie, and sexual undertones between Marie and Eleanor, some readers “saw it” and some did not. 

A large part of our discussion focused on the title. Many were confused by the title at first. Matrix comes from the Latin word “mater,” meaning mother, tied then with womb; Marie was referred to as the “womb” of the abbey, akin to a “new Eve.” The abbey, the community, is a matrix for Marie’s development, as a matrix is defined as “something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form.” Matrix also reminds us of matriarchy, and Marie, increasingly unconventional and overstepping traditional boundaries, rules the community in the religious sense – administering the sacraments of communion and confession, which are strictly priestly (male) roles in the Catholic Church. There is also the similar word “salvatrix” meaning “female savior.”  

The characters in the book had to weigh the dogma of the church against necessities for secular survival. Marie did a lot to build her reputation, but it also benefited the community. This is a book about women who have everything against them, but still they survive, breaking free from patriarchy and stereotypes. In book groups, we tend to ask how much we as a society have changed or evolved from the narrative at hand when we read historical fiction. In this case, the sheer time differential offers us more grace. The words “patriarchy” and “stereotype” didn’t even exist before the 1560s and 1920s, respectively, and even this small example of vocabulary adoption is one of the thousands of steps we’ve taken. We certainly have countless additional reasons to be thankful to the women who have gone ahead of us in the almost 1,000 years that have passed since the beginning of the 12th century. 

Other books to explore:

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

Haven by Emma Donoghue 

Circe by Madeline Miller

Upcoming titles: 

May 18 – Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

June 15 – The Maid by Nita Prose

July 20 – Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

August 17 – Horse by Geraldine Brooks

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