As a child, I read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, which I loved for its wizards and fantasy (I hope to reread it soon). In my early twenties, I read her Left Hand of Darkness, which was one of the first books that made me think seriously about gender. And now I’ve turned to what I thought would be a comparatively straightforward historical novel: her book about Lavinia, princess of Latium, who becomes the wife of Aeneas. But Le Guin is never simple. Her Lavinia is a bright, demanding person: full of questions. She probes at the limitations of the way she has been preserved for posterity, rebelling against the strictures of a poem in which she doesn’t even get to speak. Playful, intelligent and just a little bit angry, this novel reimagines one of the great epics of the Western tradition. Le Guin, and Lavinia, take Virgil to task for his omissions but this isn’t just a scolding. It’s also a great love letter from one author to another: a tribute to the power of story-telling, which can give the figures of the past a voice.
No doubt someone with my name, Lavinia, did exist, but she may have been so different from my own idea of myself, or my poet’s idea of me, that it only confuses me to think about her. As far as I know, it was my poet who gave me any reality at all … It was he who brought me to life, to myself, and so made me able to remember my life and myself … perhaps because the events I remember only come to exist as I write them, or as he wrote them.
Does Lavinia exist? She isn’t quite sure. But she knows that she has memories, which seem to prove that she really lived. She remembers herself as a young woman, ripe for marriage, going to tend the sacred grove at Albunea. She’s a virgin priestess: a Vestal, whose task it is to keep the sacred fires burning at home and to placate the gods (an outward-looking role, not the cloistered mockery of it which the Romans introduced). And there, sleeping in the sacred grove at night, she has a vision. A poet comes to her, not quite a ghost, but not present either: a figure somehow reaching out across the centuries from where, in his own time, he lies dying on a ship returning home. He knows her for his own, his Lavinia, his minor but crucial character, and so they begin to speak. The poet tells Lavinia of a great hero who is sailing westward and will become her husband; and Lavinia tells the poet – not necessarily in words, but in her self – how wrong he has been in his characterisation of her. He even gets the colour of her hair wrong.
Now, this scenario could so, so easily have come across as trite, but it works very well. Lavinia’s fascination with her poet becomes a form of self-determination. From him, she knows that she has a destiny of her own to fulfil, which gives her the strength to hold firm against the suitors who come demanding her hand in marriage. In the waking world, far from the woods of Albunea, she has reached a point where she must choose a husband, and yet she recoils from the obvious choice: laughing, handsome Turnus, who has so clearly ensnared her mother’s heart. Lavinia, like Helen, will cause a war. Like Helen, she chooses a man from another country; a stranger; one who is unacceptable to her people. And, like Helen, she does so prompted by the whisperings of an otherworldly figure: not Aphrodite, this time, but the mysterious poet.
Le Guin allows us to glimpse the everyday life of Latium before the Trojans came. There’s something of Mary Renault in her descriptions of the simple life of the palace and the traditions that would, in time, develop into great myths or rituals of the Roman world. Her Lavinia is a sweet but sensible girl, whose meeting with the poet leaves her wondering about her place in the world in a way that has never occurred to her before. When her poet tells her the stories he has written in his book – stories which help her decide what to do in her present – is she acting from free will? Can she choose a path which is different to that laid down by her poet? What right does her poet have to dictate what happens when, after all, he is writing so long after the fact? Which comes first, fact or story? And can one survive without the other? (Thinking about this made my head hurt.) But the story is meant to make us think. Le Guin includes the great scenes of the Aeneid, but her focus is on Lavinia herself and the way that this girl gives herself agency in her world, driven by a dream of a poet not yet born, who will one day write a poem in which she barely features at all, but which will nevertheless shape her memory.
The book is full of clever ideas about the nature of creation, about author’s relationships with their characters (and vice versa), and about how stories come to pass. Le Guin says in her afterword that she felt Lavinia becoming real enough to dictate parts of her own story; that adds interest to the sections in which character and author argue across the centuries about what ‘should’ happen. I felt my ignorance of Virgil very keenly: I’m sure there were lots of references I failed to get, although I was thrilled to spot another cross-historical allusion. At one point, discussing Aeneid VI, Virgil describes the misery of the underworld and the souls of unbaptised infants wailing in Limbo. Lavinia asks if he had been there with Aeneas and the answer, it is clear, troubles Virgil:
Who else would I be with? … What man did I guide? I met him in a wood, like this. A dark wood, in the middle of the road. I came up from down there to meet him, to show him the way… But when was that?
“Dante!” I squeaked aloud, feeling on firmer ground. But it’s just another example of how smart and yet unpretentious the novel is. Le Guin is formidably well-read, no doubt. She wrote this novel at the age of eighty and her love of literature, history and storytelling colours every page of it. This isn’t the book to come to if you want a straight-up retelling of the Aeneid: a sword-and-sandals novel would be better suited to that sort of thing. This is war seen through a woman’s eyes. But it’s also a thought-provoking, moving story about a meeting of two cultures – not just the Trojans and the Latins (through Aeneas and Lavinia), but also the Latins and the Romans (through Lavinia and Virgil) – and to look at how one absorbs and defines the other.
Not at all what I expected, but a novel that gives much more than its disappointing ‘women’s historical fiction’ cover suggests.