The woman known as Marie de France (c 1160–1215) is considered the first female francophone poet. She was the author of a collection of narrative poems called The Lais of Marie de France and a translation of Aesop’s fables. There are few historical certainties about her, including her actual identity, though one supposition is that she became abbess of Shaftesbury and was known to the Plantagenet court of Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Lauren Groff, in her first novel since 2015’s Fates and Furies, takes these skeletal facts and fleshes them out with Angevin-era research and rich imagination to conjure up the life of a driven, power-hungry Marie. In Matrix, following Marie’s banishment as an orphaned teenager from her family estate in France, she travels to England for protection as a bastard daughter of the king. Despite her love for the mesmerising but cruel Eleanor, Marie is deemed unfit for both court and marriage: she is ‘three heads taller than any woman should be, crown brushing the beams, bony as a heron’. The fact that she is also fierce and intelligent, with an ‘inner fire’, makes her doubly unsuitable in the chivalric world. Consequently, Eleanor subjects Marie to a second banishment, this time to a derelict abbey – a ‘living death’.
Groff evokes the time and place with language that cleaves closely to the era and Marie’s perspective: ‘Angleterre’ for England, ‘alaunt’ dogs, ‘scriptrix’ nuns, the occasional line of Old French. Her lucid prose is studded with earthy metaphors and bodily descriptions; the setting may be spiritual, but Marie’s