A 12th-century abbess deserves to be your next literary hero. Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies, shares how she found refuge in her latest novel’s community of nuns.
Lauren Groff’s fourth novel, Matrix, is a mesmerizing portrait of a remarkable nun in 12th-century England who oversees an abbey in a rapidly changing and sometimes hostile environment. After Groff’s previous books, which have explored small towns, utopian communities and Floridian flora and fauna, my most pressing questions for the author can be boiled down to, why a novel about nuns? And why now?
“Those are the questions,” Groff says with a laugh, speaking by video call from a writer’s retreat in Italy. She traces the novel’s genesis back to three years ago, when she was at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University, working on a very different novel, one she hopes that at some point will come into the world. “I was surrounded by artists and scholars that were doing things that were so far beyond my ken,” she recalls. “Every day was like a mini-explosion in my brain.”
She attended a lecture on medieval nuns by Dr. Katie Bugyis, who has researched the lives of nuns based on the liturgy they produced and used. “It was as if she had opened up my brain and threw her light in,” Groff says. “I knew it was the next thing I was going to write.”
“Awe is the most powerful emotion I know, because within awe, there is fear, there is love, there is wonder.”
Marie, the nun protagonist of Matrix, is banished from Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court at age 17 and sent to live in a penurious abbey. Awkward and miserable, Marie makes the best of her situation and soon rises to the senior position of abbess. Bit by bit she transforms the tumbledown, muddy convent into a prosperous estate with verdant fields, healthy flocks and a successful scriptorium, protected by a forest labyrinth and Marie’s shrewd awareness of shifting political winds. Along the way, she is inspired by spiritual visions and memories of her mother’s family, whom she accompanied on the early Crusades.
Marie’s story is based on that of Marie de France, considered to be one of France’s most important writers and the country’s first acknowledged female poet. So little is known about Marie that her biography is merely outline; Groff describes trying to research her as “being handed a poetic form.”
But we do know some things about her, Groff says. “We know approximately when she lived and where. We know she was a noble or gentlewoman because she was able to write in several languages. She was educated at a time when most women were not. And most importantly, we know what she wrote: fables and lais,” or narrative poems of courtly love.
Elements from Marie’s lais appear throughout Matrix, which is rich with furled rosebuds, blooming trees and enclosed gardens. “It was a joyous experience to go back to the lais, which I knew from college, and to create her life from the work,” Groff says. “I know it’s the opposite of what scholars do, but I’m not a scholar, I’m a fiction writer.”
Groff did a tremendous amount of research for Matrix, including visiting a small Benedictine convent in Connecticut where she was struck by the strong ties of kinship and community. “I was profoundly moved by the way the older nuns, who are not far from death, are cared for by the people who love them so deeply,” she says. “It’s a definition of family that is not often represented in the outside world.”
Groff drew from this idyllic setting to create her fictional community of sisters. Marie’s convent is a place of female friendships and love affairs, scholarship and learning. It’s a refuge for outsider women and those with untapped talents, ranging from engineering to calligraphy to animal husbandry. “I wanted to live in a world of women,” Groff says. “I wanted to hear women’s voices, experience only a female gaze.”
Examining the balance of community and the individual is nothing new for Groff, whose novels The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia also examined small-town life and intentional communities. Even Fates and Furies depicts a closed community of two people whose insular marriage makes it difficult for anyone else to penetrate their intense bond.
“You know,” Groff remarks ruefully, “I keep thinking I’m writing a brand-new book, but maybe I’m writing the same thing every time. I was raised in the small town of Cooperstown, New York, and I was utterly fascinated by the way individuals acted within a tight and closed community. It was early training for storytelling to be among growing, living stories of other people that you could watch out of the corner of your eye. A small place in the middle of nowhere was a real petri dish for understanding human behavior.”
Even though the world of Matrix could not seem further away from 21st-century America, Groff is well aware of how current affairs informed the writing of her new novel—and indeed, all of her work. “It’s very much in our national DNA to insist on the importance of the individual,” she says. “But a country cannot be a country without the collective, and right now the pressure points between these two courses are rising. My work struggles with this paradox and explores how Americans are choosing to live.”
At several points in the novel, Marie experiences striking visions that she does not share with the other nuns but rather keeps in a series of private notebooks. These visions draw imagery and language from the Bible, a seminal book in Groff’s upbringing and an early step to her lifelong love of literature.
Groff was raised in the Presbyterian church, where her father was a deacon, and she remembers the church of her childhood as a vaulted, soaring space, “like the inside of a whale.” The experience of being in communion with others while singing or praying had a meaningful aesthetic impact. But it was the stories from the Bible that hooked her.
“Stories are the thing that made me a person,” she says. “I was the kind of kid who was filled with religious fervor. I had a beautiful little Bible with fine tissue pages and gilt edges. I would sit and read it at night, just trying to get through all the begats and the thous, and just be filled with this unappeasable longing for the stories. And then I started seeing the stories reflected back at me from the other things I was reading. It was such an exciting feeling, like an electrical charge, to see biblical stories echoing in literature.”
Over time, Groff explains, literature took the place of religion. “I’ve become a secular believer, if that makes sense. I believe in the goodness of humanity. I am moved by the natural world in a way that is akin to the kinds of things I experienced as a child. When I am writing, I try to give the reader a few of those moments of wonder and awe. Awe is the most powerful emotion I know, because within awe, there is fear, there is love, there is wonder.”
The awe-filled moments in Matrix are too many to count, whether in the poetry of Marie’s visions, her longing for friends who are far away or the vivid descriptions of the creation of the labyrinth, a structure associated with religious contemplation that in Groff’s hands becomes a symbol, a weapon and a line of defense.
Marie conceives of the labyrinth less as a place for the nuns to find peace and more as an instrument to separate themselves from the outside world, which she perceives as dangerous and threatening. For Groff, the symbol of the labyrinth goes even deeper. She read about ancient ruins in England that had been buried underground over centuries and were now re-emerging. “Because of climate change and the wet ground drying out, the impressions of these ruins are literally coming up from the earth and becoming apparent,” she says. “I loved that idea of a hidden structure that only through trauma could be revealed. The novel is structured around the shape of a labyrinth, although it’s deeply embedded and I’m not sure anyone can see it. But it’s there.”
Matrix tells a tale of the astounding ingenuity, strength and female companionship that flourished during an era of intense patriarchal oppression. Matrix is the Latin word for mother, but additional definitions include a plant whose seeds were used for producing other plants, a grid, an organizational structure and, perhaps most significantly, “the bedrock in geology in which you find gems.”
Groff has created a labyrinth of jewel-like moments, selected from an incredible woman’s life during a time ostensibly far away from our own, and transformed it into a novel that is perfect for right now.
Author photo by Eli Sinkus