When I was an undergraduate, I took a classical literature class in which I read the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aenied (at least, enough of the content to get the gist of things, otherwise I would have gone blind). What I remember is a lot of stabbing, gods ex machina–ing, and women being treated like pawns. I was not a fan. So when I heard that Ursula Le Guin gave voice to a woman who wasn’t given dialogue in The Aenied in Lavinia, I jumped to read it, to see what she would say for herself.
Lavinia is a historical figure, but between Virgil and Roman founding myths, we don’t know much about it. Le Guin discusses in her notes at the end of the book that, even with all the research she did, she still had to exercise her imagination to fill in the gaps. Then, she added a layer of Le Guin master story-telling. Near the beginning of Lavinia, the woman herself begins to hear the voice of a dying poet who tells Lavinia what’s going to happen to her in the coming months and years. We know that this poet is Virgil. (I loved the comment by the poet about being in a dark, dark wood.) All Lavinia knows is what’s expected of her as the daughter of the king of Latium. She knew that she would be married to another high-ranking man…and she is not thrilled with the choices. The words of the poet, who told her that she would marry a powerful man from the defeated Troy, comes as a relief to Lavinia. That said, she’s not thrilled when she finds out that her marriage to Aeneas will also launch a devastating war.
There are a couple of points in Lavinia, when Lavinia asks a man why they’re fighting over such small things or why being a soldier is so glorious. More than once, she’s told that these are women’s questions. Virgil recounts who will kill who and how in a litany that strongly reminded of passages from the Iliad. I can easily imagine ancient Greek and Roman men listening, nodding their heads and admiring at the acts of heroism. For Lavinia—and me as a reader—I just saw violence and senseless death. In contrast, Lavinia is a different kind of hero. She’s the kind of hero who asks why, who asks what the right thing to do is, and who helps pick up the pieces after things go to hell more than once. Of course, no one thanks her for this.
I wish that Lavinia had had a few more intertextual elements. These get lost as the novel progresses and I missed them. I really got a kick out of Lavinia talking back to Virgil and seeing how Virgil’s words played out in Lavinia’s reality. She introduces herself as a fictional creation, but this idea got lost as Le Guin brings Lavinia back to technicolor life. I’m only picking at this nit because I, personally, love stories about stories and about choices authors make about what to include. I daresay there are more readers out there will enjoy this book because of what it is: a chance for a woman who once existed, who we only know because of a poem, to finally speak for herself.