Building a woman’s world with words

In 2015, I attended the 40th (and final) Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. For a week in early August, about 8,000 people assigned female at birth gathered on a small plot of wooded, rolling ex-farmland, staying in tents and RVs.

Womyn (spelled this way to make a point) planned the event and ran registration. Womyn raised the stages and mess tents and meeting shelters. Womyn organized the kitchen system. Womyn patrolled the grounds and taught workshops. Womyn sold pastries and coffee at the edges of dawn-damp pastures and performed on the open air stage at night. Womyn, thousands of us, sang along with the performers in a chorus—soprano, alto, and a dash of tenor—under the stars.

It took me, a “festie virgin,” a day or two to adjust to the all-female population. The higher voices, the smaller bodies. Once I did, though, the sight of a man, like the tall, heavy-legged dude delivering bread one morning, was jarring. My point of reference had adjusted to a world with female as the norm.

Where would I work in a 12th century abbey–the garden? the infirmary? the scriptorium? “Matrix” inspires me to imagine. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

“Matrix,” Lauren Groff’s new novel, reminded me of the Michigan Festival. Both create exclusive female communities using language as one of the building materials, leading to a story line: women are capable, powerful, smart and resourceful enough to build their own world—within perimeters.

In the novel, Marie de France steps into the perimeter of a 12th century English abbey at age 17. An illegitimate daughter of French royalty and a hopelessly awkward courtesan, she is sent by queen Eleanor to the backwater island to become its prioress.

When Marie arrives, the abbey is poor and humble, the women starving and sick. But with her giantess’ stature, a leader’s personality, and mystic visions, Marie shapes the abbey, over the course of her lifetime, into a thriving, powerful community. In “Matrix,” Groff shapes, with tools of language and plot, a female-centric novel with Marie as its guiding consciousness and structural force.

Exclusive language

Starting with “matrix,” an archaic word for “mother” (that now indicates a web or entrapping system,) the novel introduces a whole set of feminine words to describe roles within the abbey: cantrix, baliffess, infirmatrix.

Moreover, the book contains not a single male pronoun, name or position. Marie is a “maiden bastardess formed of rape.” A “papal dispensation” sends Marie to the abbey; “the hierarchy” oversees her leadership there.

A crew of “stonecutters” who are necessary to an abbey project gets a novice pregnant. Wulfhilde, Marie’s beloved spiritual daughter, leaves the abbey at age 18 to marry “her dearest companion,” the “gentlest soul the earth has seen.”

The lack of male characters, voices, or even references is clever, takes a few chapters to notice, and makes a sly point: how many books and films have I experienced that have few, if any female characters? And those women who do appear often fill token roles and say little. Groff’s omission of male voices reminds me of the Bechdel Test for films, which asks: does a film have 1) two female characters with names 2) who speak to each other 3) about something other than a man?

Present tense

In another text element, “Matrix” unfolds in present tense, which adds a immersive feeling to the reading. You witness Marie building this world one step at a time, in real time. You are there.

Groff’s vivid descriptions and lively characterization of Goda, Tilde, Emme, Asta, Scolastica, and dozens more sisters make this female utopia attractive. I place myself in the abbey. I imagine sleeping in the dormoir and feeling the discomfort of waking at 4 a.m. to pray Matins. I muse over which area would I work in: The kitchen, the garden, the wood shop? No, I’d end up doing what I always do: write. To the scriptorium with you, Kate (Katrix?), to join a crew of sisters copying and illustrating texts for sale.

From writing to growing and preparing food to providing herb-based medical care to building a dam, everything has to be done by hand from scratch. The nuns also undertake special projects led by Marie’s visions and news from her network of spies. They construct a dam and mount a defense against a planned attack. They turn the road to the abbey into a labyrinth.

Episodic plot

Although there are external forces on Marie’s female utopia, namely the Church hierarchy and the unreachable Eleanor, the novel is episodic. Its plot follows Marie’s life—her personal growth, spiritual visions and struggles against the secular (i.e. male-dominated) world—and the slow, steady rise of the abbey.

Without a central tension and arc, I engaged with Marie and her nuns mentally, but not emotionally. I was interested, but I didn’t love them or mourn them. I am curious about Eleanor, but I didn’t feel pull on Marie the text described. I was drawn to Marie’s motherlike love for Wulfhilde, but I wanted this spiritual mother-daughter bond to not just be in the novel, but to shape the novel.

Groff is capable of crafting a riveting plot, so it seems this episodic journey through Marie’s life is the author’s choice. And perhaps an experiment in feminine structure to go with the subject matter and vocabulary. It’s certainly a statement: this woman’s life is enough to build a book upon.

I agree, especially the part of me that struggles to construct plots for my characters. In the case of “Matrix,” however, I wish the author had woven the existing thread of Marie’s life into a tighter, more distinct pattern. she could have said more with the existing materials about passion and power, about body and spirit, about friendship and family and love.

The friend with whom I read this book described Marie’s abbey as a “feminist utopia.” I don’t think that’s quite right.

First, “female” is a fact; “feminist” a political movement and philosophical point of view. Feminism hovers in the background of “Matrix” because how could it not? Groff is writing and we are reading in the 21st century and a feminist point of view is in the currents of thought that flow through our world.

Second “Matrix” describes not so much a utopia as an alternate standard, with female as the norm. I don’t see this as a bad thing. In some times and places, for some individuals, a world of all women can be a great good. In 12th century England, Marie’s abbey gave women a place to live and thrive out from under the limitations and dangers of the male-dominated world. And now, for reasons of abuse or trauma or natural predilection, some women thrive without men.

The world, of course, contains both female and male people/bodies/voices. This duality is, at a biological level, what we need to reproduce. The world, some would argue, treats male as the norm, the female as accessory. However, time has shown that women are capable, powerful, smart and resourceful enough to build exclusive worlds within borders. The abbey’s labyrinthine road; the Michigan Festival’s fence. A self-sustaining community of women thrives within these definitions. The perimeters shape the community, but do not need to shape the woman’s life.

A woman’s life is not the world it grows in. Marie de France transcended her limitations. So can you.

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