I guess lately I’ve been reading about women of power, and this book is no exception. This novel is set in the 12th century, and is about a real person, Marie de France, who was a poet and mystic. Half sister to Eleanor of Aquataine, she was the bastard outcome of rape. Putting that together with the royal blood in her veins, as well as her excellent education and her over-tall homeliness, Marie was relegated to a “living death,” and sent at seventeen years old to run a failing monastery.
Marie basically had no faith, no spiritual life, and no calling. However, through colossal political and organizational skills, she took a handful of starving nuns and a crumbling facility, and transformed it into a thriving, self-sustaining community of over 100 contented and fulfilled women. This is basically a story of a bright blaze of early female leadership, pitted against both patriarchy and the land, which succeeded by original means.
There is much here that is heretical. Marie leads services and takes confession even though only men are supposed to. She learns that women will tell a woman more of what they are wrestling with in confession, than they would a man. In this way, Marie is in a better position to help and support them. She has visions of the Virgin Mary and Eve and makes decisions based on her interpretations of those bizarre occurrences. Some nuns have sex with each other or outsiders, and they even plan and execute an ambush on an attack, where they kill people infiltrating their property.
But the bottom line is that Marie was effective and revered, even though she did not have much of a relationship with God. Women under her guidance flourished. She was a force to be reckoned with. She accomplished all that she did specifically because she and her charges where so cut off from the male dominated world. And the book underscores that institutions, even religious ones, are run by people rather than divine intervention.
Regardless of what you think of all that, the writing here is stunning– atmospheric, lush, imaginative, and concise, all with very little dialogue. It makes me want to read other work by this remarkable author–Fates and Furies in particular–which have been languishing unread on my to-be-read list for quite a while.
This “matrix” of 12th century monastic life, under confident management, is thoughtfully considered here. I regret that the author did not spend any time on Marie’s actually renowned literary work of poems and myths. They are still studied today, a thousand years later, so this feels like a major oversight, as well as a lost opportunity.
I give Matrix four stars. Did I love it? No. Will I long remember it? Probably. Do I wish I could write that well? Definitely yes.
Watch Gentleman Jack…excellent…taken from Anne Lister’s Diaries
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