Creative Women: Matrix by Lauren Groff and Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul

Matrix by Lauren GroffI’ve not managed to post many book reviews recently, as I’ve been struggling with chronic fatigue while completing my PhD and getting my own book ready for publication. So I’m going to post a few mini-reviews over the summer, reflecting on some of the incredible books I’ve read over the past year. The first two books are very different but they both focus on the experiences of women.   

Matrix – A Novel by Lauren Groff

I was mesmerised by this fictional re-imagining of the life of Marie de France, a 12th century nun who is sent against her will to an English Abbey, where she must learn to survive in a world that feels extremely strange and restrictive. But she soon begins to carve out a niche for herself as prioress, learning to negotiate the quirks and politics of this grim place. Groff accurately portrays the harsh realities of life for women at this time, at a ferocious and gripping pace.

“It is time for Marie’s bath, she says gently.

Marie says thank you but that she needs no bath, that she bathed in November, and the abbess laughs and says that cleaning the body is also a form of prayer and at the abbey all the nuns bathe every month and the servants bathe every two months, for god is displeased by bodily odors.”

Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul

Letters to Gwen John – A Memoir/Biography by Celia Paul

I’ve always been intrigued by those female artists who somehow managed to carve out a place in the world at a time when opportunities were rare, and recognition almost impossible. Gwen John, in her lifetime, was overshadowed by the work of Augustus John (her brother) and Auguste Rodin (her lover), but she is now recognised for the talented artist that she was.

Celia Paul’s book is half-biography half-memoir. Addressed to Gwen John through a series of letters, she compares her life with Gwen’s life, her art with Gwen’s art, in an intimate appraisal of what it means to be a woman who is also an artist—or an artist who also happens to be a woman. She explores the tensions and conflicts between family and creativity, between love and the ongoing search for inspiration. This memoir-biography is emotive and poignant, and reads like a novel. It’s not cheap (due to the full-colour images) but is worth every penny.

Letters to Gwen John by Celia Paul is published by Jonathan Cape.

Matrix by Lauren Groff is published by Penguin.

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