Modern day feminism is a messy endeavor. More than 50 countries have liberalized their abortion laws in the past few decades while Roe v Wade hangs in the balance in the United States. Trans activism is reaching new heights and yet even once-celebrated feminist authors seem to struggle to legitimize trans women’s experiences or accept progressive shifts toward accurate, inclusive language. With each step forward, the waves of intrafeminist and external backlash can feel like they dampen the wins.
Perhaps that’s why when Lauren Groff released her most recent novel Matrix, a fictitious account of French poet Marie de France’s life in which she lives as an abbess for a 12th-century nunnery, readers were quick to gravitate toward the seemingly clear-cut, utopian depiction of an all-female community. From unfussy descriptions of sapphic desire to a protagonist who is ambitious rather than beautiful, the story allows women to exist as more than reproductive vessels. When Marie arrives, both the abbess’ structures and inhabitants are in a state of decay, but her arduous path toward rebuilding the community is not detached from her quest for individual status to garner the attention of Queen Eleanor, with whom she is in love. Marie is no selfless, submissive, sacrificing leader—she undertakes her given motherly role alongside a perhaps lifesaving belief in the morality of her own desires.
Marie goes to great lengths to keep her nuns and power safe, building a near impenetrable labyrinth, expelling men from the grounds entirely, and developing an international network of spies. In having or claiming to have mystic visions, she weaponizes religion (which is not to say she does not believe) to justify architectural projects that reinforce the self-sufficiency of the community. And although Marie is the visionary, her nuns prove no less formidable as they establish themselves as engineers, laborers, and even warriors, defeating jealous villagers using feminine wit rather than brute force.
There’s something universally enticing about the feminist impulses explored in Matrix. The characters are living in an inherently darker, more repressed era, and perhaps it makes the smaller wins—allowing women to write, for example—so compellingly welcome, so indisputable. The version of feminism enacted in the nunnery poses no threat; it feels safe and cozy to modern readers. But even Marie’s most faithful nuns were distraught by her assuming the duties of a priest to administer mass or hear confession. Immersing ourselves in the feminist impulses of the past may remind us that progress often feels uncomfortable or radical, but that when a woman, “Of her own mind and hands … has shifted the world,” it must be celebrated.
For those of us who want a reminder of how far feminism has come, the following 7 novels promise equal levels of historical immersion, women unafraid to claim agency in a time period unwilling to permit it, and the same celebration of female solidarity Groff so effortlessly crafts in Matrix.
Gunnar’s Daughter by Sigrid Undset, translated by Arthur G. Chater
Better known for Kristin Lavransdatter, her trilogy about a young girl sent to a 14th-century nunnery, Sigrid Undset first wrote a different historical fiction novel equally worthy of recommendation. Gunnar’s Daughter is set in 11th-century Norway and Iceland and follows Vigdis Gunnarsdatter, a young woman who conceives as a result of rape and raises her son by herself. Just as Marie is distrustful of men and the trouble that seems to too often accompany their presence, this story is haunted by male violence and its lasting impact on Vigdis. In a Norway newly accepting of Christianity, religion also towers over these pages as we watch a young woman battle for her autonomy in a patriarchal and carefully socially coded society.
Empress by Shan Sa
While Marie had to cling to what little power she had outside of the Royal courts, the woman at the heart of this Shan Sa marvel manages to sleuth her way into extreme power as China’s first and only female empress. Empress Wu’s intelligence and political know-how not only allow her to assume the elite position, but also see her use it to great effect: opening international trade routes and quelling insurrections while also allowing the arts to flourish. This 7th-century story brings to light the brilliance of a woman who helped shape the Tang Dynasty’s Golden Age, without sacrificing suspense or romance along the way.
Queen by Right by Anne Easter Smith
British historical fiction so often focuses on the kings and knights and not the wives and mothers and daughters lurking in the shadows, playing pivotal roles in the making of history. In this novel, readers follow Duchess of York Cecily Neville, an ancestor to every English monarch to date, as the War of the Roses unfolds. While a far more political novel in terms of historical context than Matrix, we still get a close look at Cecily’s homestead and the intimacies of her love marriage to Richard of York. We even see her, like Marie, experience visions from the Virgin Mary. For readers who enjoyed Matrix’s subtle hinting at the wider politics of the era, this book explores a high stakes political situation in the region while still centering a domestic perspective.
The Changeling by Kate Horsley
Peasant girl Grey is raised as a boy until the revelation of her womanhood in adolescence alters the course of her life, forcing a journey to discover her true identity—and who she will be in spite of it. The Church, political tensions of 14th-century Ireland, and the ever-terrifying Black Death shape Grey’s life as she meditates on the various privileges of being raised a boy while ultimately still succumbing to certain feminine vulnerabilities, including her sexual exploitation at the hands of men and the toils of motherhood. Grey is a character who prevails despite the unfairness of her circumstances, a character I think Groff’s Marie would respect.
And Tomorrow Is a Hawk by Kathryne Finn
While Matrix deals surprisingly little with Marie as poet, the written word proves itself an incredible lifeline for heroine Julyana Berners. While under the care of 14th-century Queen Anne, Julyana meets the greatest of literary teachers: Chaucer. He teaches her not only to write, but also the power of the written word and being able to tell one’s own story. Her resulting chronicling of her life makes for a welcoming and remarkable look at Plantagenet England.
The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
In a nunnery rendered as richly as Marie’s, this story similarly spans many decades of both everyday life and more dire turns of fate in a 14th-century Benedictine convent. This is a quiet and somehow still miraculous novel, immersing readers more in the feeling of this life and the priory’s inhabitants than specific plot points.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Taking place in Warwickshire in the 1580s, this work technically misses the medieval mark but still predates the origins of feminism by a few hundred years. Just as Groff reimagines the life of a true historical figure, O’Farrell draws from Shakespeare’s personal life and the loss of his son, Hamnet. However, the novel refocuses the narrative on Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife, to tell a distinctly feminine story of marriage and the gut-wrenching loss of a child. We can’t help but celebrate writing women’s voices more tangibly into the historical record.