— Matrix, by Lauren Groff, Riverhead Books (2021) & Queen of the Sea, by Dylan Meconis, Walker Books (2020)
It is quite a feat to richly imagine the life of a historical figure about whom so little is known, but Lauren Groff does it with aplomb in her most recent novel, Matrix. We are introduced to the heroine Marie when she is still very young: “She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old, in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France.” This is a nod to the single historical truth we have about Marie, a twelfth century French female poet.
Groff immediately highlights Marie’s strength, if not her beauty. “Her face is wet with rain, not tears. She has yet to cry for having been thrown to the dogs.” For at this tender age, court politics have conspired to see Marie exiled to a remote convent in England. The truth of her fate does not escape her. It is permanent, and Marie “at last understood that she would be sent into her living death alone.”
But as she grows and learns to negotiate relationships both within the convent and without, Marie becomes a powerful figure in her own right. She also learns to love, and be loved — perhaps her greatest challenge as she comes to lead the Abbey.
At times Marie appears more like an army general than an abbess: her visions inspire the nuns in her abbey to work hard and fight back against the male-dominated world that puts them and their way of life at constant risk. There are impossible works of engineering in Marie’s story and literal battles, all showcasing the power of female friends to work together to protect themselves. And yet, Marie’s great works come at a huge personal cost. Groff is adept at showing Marie as a real flesh and blood woman, a proto-feminist who sees the conflict inherent in being a woman with ambition who also happens to love. When one of the women she loves the most dies in part due to Marie’s ruthless expectations, Marie begins to question the relationship between love and devotion in a world that is so dismissive of women:
“She has made her life holy, she has lived sinless, she has said all the right words, but deep within she has coveted her own rebellious pride,” is Groff’s description of the arrogance, which brought a final illness upon Marie’s favorite sister, Wulfhild. “Her endless hunger ate up the daughter of her spirit. Her actions always in reaction to the question of what she could have done in the world, if she had only been given her freedom.”
We are left to wonder: has it been worth it? We root for Marie and we are proud of the barriers she topples and the leadership she shows in doing so. And yet, we cannot help but feel that the consequences are tragic — even if necessary.
Dylan Meconis’ graphic novel Queen of the Sea is the perfect complement to Groff’s Matrix. Although targeted at young adults, this beautifully illustrated book has much to offer for any age. Queen of the Sea is also inspired by real events: the exile of young Queen Elizabeth by her sister Mary in the sixteenth century. Meconis uses this history as a springboard to tell the story of Margaret, a young girl living on a barely-accessible island of nuns, her origins a mystery to all but the abbey’s Prioress.
Both novels outline medieval convent life in simple but fascinating terms, deeply immersing readers into this long-ago, seemingly esoteric world. But Meconis’ heroine Margaret makes no bones about how foreign this life — her “paradise” as a child, a paradise that must be lost in order to be regained — must seem to outsiders.
While Queen of the Sea unfolds like a page-turning mystery, filled with scandalous secrets, court intrigues, and forbidden loves, both the text and the illustrations have a restrained, subtle beauty to them. As in Matrix, we see women coming of age insulated from a world dominated by men, and yet are continually struck by their bravery and their ingenuity in the face of deeply distressing events. And these women are successful despite the great odds against them, although success does not always equal happily-ever-after. Like Groff’s Marie, their success often requires great devotion — and great sacrifice.
Originally from New York, Danielle Johnson is a writer and political scientist who has lived all over the world. She has a PhD in Politics from Oxford University and is writing her first novel. She lives in Shepherdstown with her husband, kids, and dog.By Danielle Johnson