A review of Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin (Gollancz, 2009) – originally published in Interzone
In this novel Ursula Le Guin re-works the later volumes of Virgil’s Aeneid. She tells the story of the arrival of Aeneas and the Trojans in Italy from the perspective of a minor character in Virgil’s poem. Lavinia is the daughter of King Latinus of Laurentium and is destined to become Aeneas’ second wife. And that is nearly all that Virgil tells us about her.
As Lavinia herself complains, Virgil slighted her life and scanted her in his poem. But now Le Guin sets the record straight. She remains faithful to Virgil’s account of how the Trojans settle in Italy, choosing to expand on Lavinia’s life rather than alter the story as it has already been told. Latinus is still warned by an oracle that his daughter must marry a foreigner and so he offers her hand to Aeneas. King Turnus, Lavinia’s former suitor, still takes offence and launches a war against the Trojans. And Aeneas still kills Turnus in single combat. But Le Guin carries on where Virgil left off, telling us of the marriage of Lavinia and Aeneas and their life together until his death just three years after landing in Italy. The closing pages of the novel continue the story of Lavinia as she brings up Silvius, the son she bore Aeneas, and faces down her stepson Ascanius, and then on into old age . . . and beyond?
Lavinia can be read as a historical novel in the sense that Le Guin has lovingly re-created the relatively simple bronze age culture that ultimately gave birth to Rome. In the course of telling Lavinia’s story, she paints a sympathetic picture of their daily lives (admitting in an afterword that she has played down their primitiveness). I was particularly struck by her portrayal of the part religion played in their lives – a much simpler, more pantheistic religion than that imagined by Virgil, a religion of ancestral spirits and numinous places.
At court, Lavinia cultivates a self-effacing persona to appease the uncertain temper of her mentally unstable mother. With her peers, she is altogether more spirited – running wild with girls of her own age, going alone to holy places, even spying on the Trojan camp when they first arrive in Italy. But she is an unlikely heroine by the standards of modern culture. Where we are conventionally encouraged to find freedom and fulfilment by expressing our individuality, Lavinia finds them within the constraints imposed upon her by society. She embraces her role as priestess of the household. She accepts that it is her fate to marry Aeneas. Indeed, she is initially drawn to him not by love but by a sense of destiny and by her awareness that Aeneas shares that piety, that acceptance of fate. Ultimately she learns to use those constraints to her advantage as, for example, in her conflict with Ascanius over Silvius’ upbringing. But why has Le Guin written her protagonist in such a passive manner? One simple answer could be her hatred of anachronism (which anyone who remembers her scathing comments on aspects of Kathryn Kurtz’s Deryni novels will know). The freedom she accords Lavinia is the only freedom available to a woman in the kind of patriarchal society portrayed here.
But there is another dimension to Lavinia’s private spiritedness, which transforms the novel from simply a historical novel into something much more experimental. Lavinia dares to argue with her original creator, Virgil. Le Guin’s Lavinia is not simply a character in a historical novel but a character who is aware of herself as the product of someone else’s imagination. At several points in her narration of her life story she recounts visits to the sacred spring of Albunea where, across the centuries, she speaks with Virgil as he lies dying. So far, so strange. But even aware of her fictionality she doesn’t hesitate to question and contradict her creator – on trivia, such as the colour of her hair, and the fundamentals of life, such as the necessity of war. And the strangeness is compounded by a passing remark of Virgil, which reveals that he too has a vague sense of being involved in another story – a story in which he acts as guide to someone he meets in a dark wood. And, to some extent, Virgil guides Le Guin’s Lavinia as elsewhen he guides Dante.
But ultimately Lavinia like Dante is left to go on alone. The Aeneid breaks off with Turnus’ and Virgil’s death. Thereafter Lavinia has to forge her own path. In contrast to the violent and very obvious ending of the Aeneid, Lavinia ends in quietness and mystery in the sacred grove that meant so much to Lavinia in life . . . a grove now haunted by a little owl that sometimes remembers what it was to have been a Latin princess who loved a Trojan hero.
I have read and re-read most of Ursula Le Guin’s novels many times. They are clever and well-written and contain moments of greatness. But this one towers above them. When the time comes to compile lists of the great novels of the twenty-first century, Lavinia ought to figure strongly.