July 12, 2008

Lavinia, Ursula K. LeGuin

Feminine virtue is the form and content of this novel; and that's a conundrum, because 'virtue' is by etymology and old custom male. This conundrum is also the form and content of the novel; I find the whole increasingly elegant as I think about it.

More explicitly, the story is a reimagination -- fanfic, really -- of Italy just as Virgil's Aeneas establishes what will eventually be Rome. Virgil is a character, as he is in Dante (and is plausibly, thoughtfully bewildered by the contrast). Lavinia herself, Aeneas' wife in Italy, is a cipher in Virgil, as a 'good wife' is a cipher in later Roman literature ('sweet and gracious silence'?). But the pre-Roman cultures are not nearly so oppressive of women; the Trojans picked it up from the Greeks and Persians. (Which is, as far as I know, probably anthropologically true.) So why did Lavinia agree to marry a foreigner who brings nothing but war?

Well, the oracle said she had to, and conforming gracefully to necessity is a virtue, and feminine in its unregarded difficulty. LeGuin manages to make it seem reasonable and tolerable as a life's work, although very sad. For that matter, she manages to make Aeneas a greatly sympathetic character, mostly by making his unkindnesses -- leaving Creusa, leaving Dido, invading Italy -- also a matter of conforming gracefully to he decree of the Fates, even though they promise glory through war that he hates. 'Virtue' is much in question:

"If a man believes his virtue can be proved only in war," he said to Ascanius, "then he sees time spent on anything else as wasted. Farming, if he's a farmer--government, if he's a ruler--worship, the acts of religion--all inferior to prowess in war. ... I would not trust that man to farm, or govern, or serve the powers that rule us. Because whatever he was doing, he'd seek to make war."

Find in a Library: Lavinia

Posted by clew at 11:07 AM
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