Marking Manchester Pride, in a month which has also seen the first ever local Prestwich Pride event, this is a review of a book about a lesbian woman in medieval England. It’s an extremely odd book, actually: there’s a long section about the main character at 17, and then she jumps from being 17 to being 47 within the space of a few pages. Also, it’s written in the present tense, which is very annoying, and uses some bits of American slang with which British readers may be unfamiliar. It’s an interesting story, though, about an abbess who makes her abbey into a self-contained, self-sufficient, all-female world.
Marie de France was the first woman to write French poetry, some of it quite controversial in that it was often about adultery and or female power. However, very little’s known about her. She was born in France, spent much of her life in England, was known at the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and must have been of noble birth as lower-class women wouldn’t have had the education shown by her work. That’s about all that’s known, so the story is effectively Lauren Groff’s invention.
She casts Marie as an illegitimate half-sister of Henry II, dispatched to an English convent as a prioress, where she later becomes abbess. So far, it’s as likely a story as any.
But it becomes a story about an all-female world. Marie bans men from the convent: the sons of female servants are not even allowed into the grounds, and male beggars seeking alms have to go to a separate building nearby. Meanwhile, she changes the idea of work being a means of bringing humility to an idea of work being a positive thing: the nuns are assigned tasks to which they’re well-suited, and the convent becomes largely self-sufficient thanks to its successful farming and gardening. They even have female blacksmiths and carpenters. That much is OK, but she won’t let priests or monks in, and administers the sacraments herself. Surely there’s no way that she’d have got away with that?
Marie has quite a negative view of men, possibly because her birth related from Geoffrey Plantagenet raping her mother. She’s always aware of the danger from violent men. And she was then forced off her mother’s family’s lands by male relatives who wanted them for themselves. She behaves in quite a domineering way herself, collecting rents from tenants who can’t really afford to pay, but we learn that she admires powerful women – the Empress Matilda, the first person to show her kindness after her mother’s death, and then Eleanor of Aquitaine with whom she’s secretly in love. She dedicates her poems to Eleanor, as a male troubadour would do.
Even the women of the Bible are brought into it: Marie has visions of Eve and of the Virgin Mary, and they tell her to build a labyrinth to keep the abbey safe from the outside world. The women build it themselves, but the outside world is angry, thinking that they must have some sort of treasure which they want to keep hidden away. Is there meant to be some sort of parallel with Rosamund’s Bower, built to keep a woman safe for a man? And are we meant to be thinking that this is, by now, the troubled world of Richard I’s reign, the world of Robin Hood? I don’t know, because neither Rosamund nor Robin get mentioned, but I’m just putting the ideas out there! By this point, Marie is all-powerful at the abbey: the other nuns do her bidding, and she’s in regular correspondence with Eleanor. Later, outside events – Richard I’s capture, and the Interdict in John’s time – do get more of a mention. That does make the book more believable and more a part of the real world, as the abbey has to pay over part of its wealth to help meet Richard’s ransom.
It’s an unusual and sometimes fascinating story about a world of medieval women, but I don’t know that it could actually have happened. I don’t actually think it’s intended to be 100% realistic, but I’m a historian so I look for realism!
It wasn’t really my thing, because I like historical fiction to be “real”; but it kept my attention, and it’s worth a try if you’re looking for something a bit different.