When I read the first lines of Lauren Groff Matrix, the challenge the book presented was clear. To make this partly historical and mostly imaginary world convincing, the novel would have to absorb me in its language. I couldn’t think all the time, “Is this realistic? Would a woman in medieval Europe really think/say/do that? The stretch in the mind and heart of a medieval woman was dramatic enough that ordinary contemporary language would not suffice.
Groff largely succeeds. The novel’s language holds up, with surprising cadences and vocabulary that make it clear you’re in another world and love being there. “The new prioress Tilde, nervous and scrupulous, with the soft and surprised face of a dormouse” reads a sentence, delicious in its specificity and its strangeness, with a slight Alice in Wonderland feeling. After several pages, I had given up on realism and was in on it.
The Ride is the story of a 12th-century abbess named Mary, an unrecognized child of a king, or in the language of the novel, a “bastard”. The story follows Mary from the failure of the children’s crusade at the court in France of her half-sister Queen Eleanor to her exile in an English abbey. It examines his rise to power, his ambition, and the relationship between his physical and spiritual hungers. The novel follows a steady pace throughout the life of the Abbess, stopping at intimate and sensual details – a look into the mind of the Abbess or those who admire or hate her – then it sets off again, letting decades run through the reader’s fingers.
This tale is female-centric – all of its main characters, romances, and personalities are female. Mary pays little attention to popes or priests or bishops, kings or princes. They are abstract figures that play distant games or make threats at distances that are too close, but still impersonal. She ends up exiling all the men from the Abbey property because they cause too much trouble.
One of the wonderful ways Groff plays with the female curated universe is with the female suffix. -trix. Characters include a cantrix, a nurse, and a scriptrix, among others. With each repetition of this suffix and the unknown words it creates, reminds us of the feminine utopia that we imagine, this world where women make the rules and enforce them. Words stand like little bridges between our world, what we think we know about the European Middle Ages, and the world Groff is creating. It’s fun and contributes to the effective defamiliarization of the novel.
But the proto-feminist gaze Groff uses to create Mary and Her World also hurts her success. Groff’s portrayal of female sexuality, Marie’s personality, her relationships with the other nuns in the convent, and the ambition that drives Marie to want more wealth, power, and autonomy are all compelling. But there came a point in my reading when the world of imagination that Groff was describing cracked. A little late in the career of Abbess of Mary, she has a vision of seven towers and all around them, trying to penetrate them, the beasts of the Apocalypse. In one of the towers, she sees the nuns of her abbey singing. The song is so powerful that it seems to cause an earthquake and the beasts move away from the tower, although their threat is still present.
Combined with other factors, Mary decides that the meaning of the vision is that she should assume priestly functions: she should begin to offer confession and the Eucharist to her sisters. Her decision creates great controversy in the abbey, and Mary overcomes this controversy with arguments about Mary Magdalene, Apostola Apostolorum, and the Virgin, through whom the Word became man.
I already felt like Groff was on thin ice. My objection wasn’t ideological, and it wasn’t even practical. A feminine utopia, such as this, is fundamentally about challenging the powers that be. The abbey is a pretty secluded place which Mary, as abbess, has made even more secluded by creating a huge underground labyrinth through which one enters the abbey. And I understood that we were in mythical territory, guided by dreams and visions. But something in the cheerful way in which Marie decides to take on this task displeased me. The episode ends a few pages later with a scene that bothered me even more, along the same lines.
And when [the nuns’] sadness weighs so heavily on her that she cannot sleep, Marie likes to go down to the scriptorium and change the Latin of missals and psalters to feminine, because why not when they are only intended to be heard and pronounced by women ? She laughs to herself while doing it. Cutting off women in texts seems mean. It’s funny.
For starters, the question of whether women can say Mass and change the wording of Scripture sounds like modern concerns, as if Mary had suddenly jumped from Groff’s world and was sitting in a theology school classroom circa 1975. Even the word fun was shocking. The enchantment, for me, has burst.
Then there is the relationship between this representation and the character of Mary. Marie is many things, but fun and sneaky are not one of them. Fun and sneaky wouldn’t have made her the woman she is. The individuality and secrecy expressed here is so different from the way Mary wields power: everyone does what she wants by public declaration, because they are afraid of her or because she makes their lives better. with his choices on behalf of the community.
Perhaps more than anything, the idea that Mary could remake the workings of power in medieval Catholicism by changing word endings to feminine is too mechanical and rote an idea for a novel that evokes the power of words to create worlds. Ironically, Groff’s world unraveled for me the same way it did: through a question about language.