SEPTEMBER 22, 2021
MARIE, THE 12TH-CENTURY nun at the center of Lauren Groff’s latest novel, Matrix, has given herself a mandate: “She will make something useful, a lake, out of something useless, this bog of mud and stink, this swamp.” An illegitimate and unsuitable daughter of the crown, Marie has been banished from Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court to manage an ailing abbey where “all is gray and full of shadows.” Harboring little reverence for the church, she knows that abbeys are often used as receptacles for women unfit for — or threatening to — the social order. But as she ascends the abbey’s ranks, she soon recognizes a pocket of freedom within its walls. The abbey’s relative marginality, paired with the vital role of its estate in sustaining the local economy, presents an opportunity for Marie to withdraw from her diocesan superiors and craft a guarded, defiant authority. She sets out to reshape the abbey and its environs into an ideal community where its inhabitants can fulfill their collective potential.
Marie gains influence through care and conviction, subverting the patriarchal structures of the church to protect and bring out the best in the nuns she leads. But as she wields her power to preserve her Eden, the abbey is confronted with troubling political concerns: the human and environmental costs of excessive productivity, the curtailing of freedom of thought for the sake of community, the corrupting tendencies of consolidated power. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, “Every utopia since [Thomas More’s] Utopia has also been, clearly or obscurely, actually or possibly, in the author’s or in the readers’ judgment, both a good place and a bad one.” In our conversation in August, Groff shared her thrill at creating this world of women, both its virtues and vulnerabilities.
ELIZABETH DEWOLF: Marie is based on the poet Marie de France, who wrote a series of lais about courtly love in the late 12th century. You’ve said in other interviews that the dearth of available information about her gave you flexibility in writing her story. What did you draw on to create her character?
LAUREN GROFF: Marie went through many modifications through the drafts of this book. I really wanted her to be large and imposing. I went back to the lais and the fables, and I plucked out all of these tiny little images and made a sort of prose poem with them. Then I traced a biography onto those images. Ultimately, Marie’s character came directly out of an imaginary biography written through the ideas in the images in her own work. That is the only way I could have come even possibly close to a truth of who the actual historical person was. But I also think she had to be an outsider, so she had to be a bastardess. And I think she had to have lost her mother in order to talk through these ideas of motherhood and what being an unwilling mother is.
You’ve explored historical fiction before, and you’ve mentioned elsewhere that you’d been working on a different historical novel when the idea for Matrix came to you. What attracts you to a particular time period when starting a new project?
Back in 2015, I gave a talk where I said, “I will never write historical fiction again, because we have to engage with the contemporary world.” And I do believe that. But I think there are ways of tracing something maybe a little bit off to the side about the contemporary world through historical fiction. “What if?” is the basis of everything that ends up in my novels. And for this novel, the question was: What if there were a world of women? And for my next novel, it’s: What if there were a female Robinson Crusoe? The time period comes up through this “what if?” For Matrix, I chose the 12th century primarily because I’ve loved Marie de France for 20 years. And I thought, the 12th century is a time when there were incredibly powerful abbeys and something like this could have been plausible. And my next one is set in 1609 because I thought, when could a woman find herself lost alone in the woods?
Can you talk about the interplay between Marie’s noble and more tyrannical aspects as a leader? Did you know from the outset that you wanted to explore these tensions, or did they assert themselves as you developed the story?
The inspiration for that was somewhat bifurcated. On one hand, my initial research into these abbeys at the time blew me away. These abbesses were extraordinarily competent businesspeople. They were fluent in multiple languages, including Latin and the lingua franca (French was the language of those in power at that time). They had to be competent in math. They had to oversee the food production for the entire community and to make sure that there was enough food to give as alms. They had to be masters of these incredibly complex structures at a time when most women were not taught any of these skills, with the exception of noble women who may have been taught to run an estate.
On the other hand, the book is a critique of capitalism, which is inherent in this structure where holy women are businesspeople. Capitalism is ravenous, and Marie, in charge of not only the godly women under her but also of the abbey’s business, becomes a capitalist. She takes on the need for constant expansion in order to protect the people under her. She finds herself replicating the exact things she hates the most about the world at large. I have some skepticism about the idea that a world run by women would be run any more gently. Women are also human beings, with human failures. Putting them on a pedestal and saying that if all world leaders were women, we would have a peaceful society seems very naïve to me. This idea, which I’ve encountered throughout my life, seems to diminish the humanness of women. So I was looking at this very strange figure of Marie, who is both very admirable and embodies a lot of the failures inherent in stepping up and taking on this role of leader. I think those failures are almost inevitable unless you really question the underlying systems and structures.
Catholicism, with its strong emphasis on hierarchy and centralized authority, is particularly ripe for this exploration of power. You’ve talked before about being raised Calvinist. Did that upbringing lend itself well to researching and writing about life in the abbey, or did the sectarian differences make it a challenge?
It was utterly terrifying to think about trying to write about the Catholicism of the 12th century. Not because I was afraid of writing about religion or God, but because the Catholicism of that century is so different from Catholicism now. For instance, I didn’t realize until I did a great deal of research that everyday things we associate with Catholicism didn’t exist then — the rosary wasn’t even invented until the 13th century. In early drafts, leaning on my stack of books about contemporary Catholicism, I put a ton of rosaries in, but nobody used them at the time — who knew! Ultimately, my terror was mitigated by knowing that human nature is human nature, and a lot of the New and Old Testament texts that I knew by heart as a devout child were the same. It was also mitigated by the fact that 12th-century Catholicism was so incredibly weird and exciting. There were these pervasive, constantly reoccurring Cults of Mary, the idea of which filled me with fire because it changed my perspective of the position of women in the church. There was a hunger to make a female figure sit at the center of belief. I loved the process of researching, while, at the same time, I knew I was going to get many things wrong. That’s why I had really great and knowledgeable readers who could tell me, for example, they wouldn’t have done this liturgy at this time, because the nuns had a very strict liturgical schedule, and if you mess that up, it’s all over.
From her youth, Marie carries an unrequited love for Queen Eleanor. This obsession fuels her ambition, despite Eleanor herself featuring relatively little in the novel. Was keeping the distance between the two characters necessary to maintain Marie’s drive?
One of the beautiful things about this time period is that it had two very distinctive narrative frameworks going on at the same time. One is, of course, the immensely complicated belief system belonging to the Catholic Church, and the other is the idea of courtly love. Courtly love, which was expanded in Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court, offers very codified stories about relationships, some in direct contravention to the rules of the Church. The beloved figure was always a bit beyond the reach of the lover, sometimes because the beloved is married to another. My vision of Marie is that she, of course, knows all of the stories of Catholicism, but she also loves the stories of courtly love, and that is the framework through which she begins to see the world when she’s 17 and in Eleanor’s court. That’s the kind of mindset that sinks in deepest. Throughout the novel, Eleanor has to be this distant hologram of a person, because she’s the queen, and she’s the person on whom all of these myths are being thrust. At the time when Eleanor was alive, there was no person in all of Europe who had more fake news told about her. There was a story where she was able to get through a labyrinth to poison her husband King Henry II’s mistress, whom he’d put there to protect from her, the evil Eleanor. People cast all of their fears about powerful women onto her until, under the weight of the myths, she became larger than life.
And Marie had to have someone to love. I don’t know if she would have survived the early years at the abbey without glomming on to someone like Eleanor. Even as Marie grows and comes to know more about Eleanor herself through their correspondence, she still sees the myth more than the actual woman. But she clings to the myth because she could never be with the actual woman. It’s her courtly love expressing itself through the figure of an impossibility.
Each nun in the abbey is distinct. Take Goda, the subprioress, who “has the affronted air of someone who lurks in corners to hear herself spoken ill of so that she can hold tight a grievance to suckle.” You clearly loved writing these characters.
I find the nuns in this book to be so funny and weird. Goda is very similar in some ways to someone I know. That’s one of the great joys of writing fiction — you can embed your loved ones into it. Goda is strange, and she’s full of love, and she and Marie just don’t get along — actually Goda doesn’t get along with anyone. Goda complains all the time, and she’s a 12th-century veterinarian who does not do well with actual humans. I liked her the most.
I was thinking about these women and their motivations for going into an abbey. There were people who chose it as their vocation. But there were also women who were sort of cast-away, unmarriageable daughters. And then there were women who had been kidnapped. This actually happened at the time — there were Welsh princesses who were kidnapped and sent to an abbey so that they couldn’t have sons who would be raised to fight back against the crown. They were political prisoners. There were so many reasons why these women ended up in these communities. And trying to negotiate all the personalities was extraordinarily fun. One would assume from our perch in the 21st century that these were all incredibly holy women, and a lot of them were, but they were also just women. Nuns fight sometimes. As part of my research, I visited this wonderful Benedictine abbey, Regina Laudis, in Connecticut. They invite you in and you get to stay in the guest house and the food is so delicious. There is fresh bread made on site every day, and cheese, too, by a nun who went to France to get a PhD in cheesemaking. But even there, the nuns have a few interpersonal issues. People are, as a whole, annoying. It’s touching and lovely to see that even holy women can bridle and baulk at their sisters.
What were you reading or watching while working on Matrix?
I read as much as possible about all the possible manifestations of being a nun. I read academic work and popular histories of the time, smart contemporary fiction about the medieval ages, articles and articles. But in terms of fiction, I read Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen four times. It’s so beautiful. I read The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner halfway through editing. It’s wild, and it’s funny, and just has no plot. But I also watch movies with intention, because sometimes when I’m just feeling done with my own mind, and I can’t take another book, I’ll pretend that movie-watching actually helps. Black Narcissus is a great nun movie. There’s a great German movie about Hildegard von Bingen called Vision. There’s Doubt, Agnes of God. There is something very mysterious and beautiful between the sisters in these communities, and that ineffable thing was something difficult to write my way into. Seeing a version on the screen helped. At a certain point, down deep in the well of research, I throw up my hands and think that I might as well pour everything I can over my head and watch what comes out.