No, Marie protests; she is but 17 and entirely lacking a vocation, having been quick to discard the “foolish” religion she was raised in. After all, “why should she, who felt her greatness hot in her blood, be considered lesser because the first woman was molded from a rib and ate a fruit and thus lost lazy Eden?” Marie’s answer to her exile from court is to remain devoted to a vision that excludes both Adam and the serpent. Her decades-long care for and control of the women fate places in her hands will only harden her resolve to disobey what Eleanor presents as the basic ground rule between the sexes: the “laws of submission” that place women at the mercy of men.
A series of 19 apparitions of the Virgin Mary will organize Marie’s rule and validate her earthly ambition, which turns out to be as outsize as Marie herself, gradually transforming a small community of sick and starving women into a sprawling mini-Vatican magically, or mystically, hidden in the Arthurian forest, minus the boys. In the beginning, it’s all she can do to keep the nuns alive in their cloister. But, once she recovers from self-pity enough to understand the opportunity she has been given — real estate and a small army of celibate workers — she makes the most of every asset, beginning with the creation of a scriptorium.
Never mind that the work is intended for men — women “not thought able or wise enough” — Marie quietly spreads word that her nuns’ copying services are available for a fraction of what monasteries charge. And with this first impertinence, the abbey is set on a course of ignoring how the patriarchal powers-that-be might regard being undersold, or deceived, or dismissed or defied. One insult follows upon the other, ushering Marie past what is ill advised and into blasphemies, as she assumes priestly functions that make her feel “royal” and “papal” and frighten the nuns in her charge.
Female ambition and power are the central themes of “Matrix,” a math-y title that’s hard to pry off the science fiction film franchise. But the word originates from “mater,” which is Latin for mother, and thus associated with the Virgin, whose second apparition reveals Eve as the “first matrix.” In Marie’s exalted perception, her womb brought death into the world; and without Eve there could be no Mary, “no salvatrix,” and thus no deliverance. The purloined fruit of the tree of knowledge tumbles through time and past conception, immaculate or otherwise, to land in the womb of Mary, “the House of Life.” Jesus doesn’t really come into the picture.
So tempting to just shove them offstage, the menfolk, and why not? This is a romance, after all, and one that calls upon the powers of the fairy Mélusine, whom Groff gives to Marie as an ancestor. In these pages, men never appear, they only loom — a chronic menace of randy villagers and diocesan superiors, with “their stinking breath, their cheeks pimpled from shaving with dull ecclesiastical razors.” Marie’s trajectory depends on eluding or dispatching complications that come with men, which, apart from the machinations of bishops, are here represented only by predatory behavior: the usual rape and pillage.