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the first French poetess known for her collection Les Lais de Marie de France

by Nathan Zachary
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Matrix”: the astonishing portrait of Marie de France, nun and medieval poetess, by the American writer Lauren Groff
In her new novel, the American writer Lauren Groff delivers a romantic portrait of Marie de France, the first woman of letters, free and feminist fighter before her time. A book carried by a writing of an enthralling richness.
After Les Furies, which told the life of a couple in the contemporary world, Lauren Groff transports us with Matrix, her new novel published on January 6 by Editions de L’Olivier, in an English abbey of the Middle Ages. In this fictionalized biography of Marie de France, poet of the 12th century, the American writer paints the portrait of a free heroine, with a temperament as impetuous as it is irreverent.

The story: Matrix retraces the life of Marie de France, the first French poetess known for her collection Les Lais de Marie de France, twelve stories in verse narrating chivalrous adventures and courtly love. From an almost non-existent biography – we know almost nothing about the life of this “bastard” – Lauren Groff invents the life of the one who is thought to be the natural daughter of Geoffroy V of Anjou, father of Henry II, second husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who became King of England in 1154.

The young Marie loses her mother at the age of twelve, survives alone for two years hiding her mother’s death and takes the opportunity to educate herself. She was then welcomed at the court of Westminster, with her half-brother of royal blood, husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Marie spent happy days there for a few years, but when she was 17, Aliénor told her that she had been appointed prioress of a royal abbey in the English countryside. “At least we now knew what to do with this strange bastard half-sister of royal blood”.

Little sensitive to the charms of religion, and not at all enthralled by this destiny sealed by the family “for a very long time”, this graceless, unmarriageable giantess, however, has no other choice but to accept. Marie leaves with a heavy heart the “music, laughter and courtly love” of the court, tears herself away from Aliénor, the object of her passion since childhood, and leaves behind Cécile, whom she has known since birth, and who “until this moment was everything to her, lover, sister, servant, companion of pleasure and only loving soul through all England”.

Upon her arrival, Marie discovers an abbey plagued by misery, and nuns “so hungry that their heads are no more than emaciated skulls in the dark dormitory”. Desperate, she embarked on writing a collection in lay, “translated into the beautiful musical French of the court”, which she intended to send to Aliénor to regain the favor of living at court. But his hopes are in vain. The young woman then decides to relegate her love for Eleanor to the back of her mind, to which she will however remain faithful until death, according to the rules of courtly love. Then she took the destiny of this moribund abbey firmly in hand. She will become its abbess and will make it a prosperous place, a place of security for her “sisters”, sheltered from the violence of men.


Crazy female utopia
The writer paints an edifying portrait of Marie, a complex, free-thinking, erudite, determined woman, rebellious to the diktats imposed by men, by her peers, or even by the times, but also a sensual woman and hypersensitive to the poetry of the world. Through the utopian figure of Marie, the writer evokes timeless battles, for the sharing of wealth, for freedom, for the possibility of building against and against a whole other world.

Lauren Groff deploys in this sixth novel an extremely rich language (let us salute in passing the very beautiful translation work of Carine Chichereau) to describe the landscapes, the English countryside surveyed by Marie on the back of her old mare, the death of a bird but also the nuns, their physique, their habits, their moods, or their desires, which are expressed without complexity behind the walls of the abbey.

Like Diderot with his Nun or Agustin Gomez-Arcos and his Maria Republica, Lauren Groff happily seizes this camera with strong romantic potential, here too a pretext to denounce the excesses of political power or overwhelming religious. A quirky meditation on power, Matrix is ​​above all a hymn to literature, to the art of storytelling, “the best way to exist” in the eyes of those we love.

Matrix, by Lauren Groff, translated from English (United States) by Catherine Chichereau (Ed. de L’Olivier, 304 p., €23.50)

“The first spring she spent at the abbey, Marie planted the pits of the apricots she had stolen from the queen’s garden to keep them away from her, they reminded her too much of everything she had lost. They will struggle to grow, will be covered in tiny, skinny leaves, she will feel that her own life is tied to these trees, and she doesn’t know yet whether she wants to see them prosper or die.
The pressure of the hierarchy on the nuns is daily, overwhelming. Marie learns to recognize the footsteps of certain superiors of the diocese in the corridors, for they are shod in boots, not the clogs of the women of the abbey, and as soon as she hears them, she leaps up and slips away silently into the backstage, leaving Emme in her mists, because after all it is still her, the abbess, who has to deal with the demands, the rules, the pressures for money, the endless requests for the nuns to offer their time, their prayers, their efforts, all of which Emme graciously acquiesces in, and then conveniently forgets to tell Mary about. Well, she decides, she will have to train her superiors like dogs and hawks with rewards, but slowly so that they do not notice anything.” (Matrix, p. 69)

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