Penguin Great Loves series; book 1 – Doomed Love by Virgil

I was watering my plants recently, I have a bunch of cascading plants on the top of my bookshelves, when my eye happened upon this set of books which I’d somehow managed to ignore before. Perhaps I had considered them a kind of interesting decoration, rather than a collection of 20 books. I bought this collection a long time ago, it was at a time when The Book People still existed and I remember it distinctly because that particular day I bought 47 books and I think that was the point when I realised my book buying habits had got a little out of hand. Perhaps that is why this collection has languished, unacknowledged, for so long. But no more! I am making a clean start and I cannot pretend these books are not part of it. No more hiding. I have added them to my backlist – increasing my ‘to read’ pile to 262 books – and I’m going to work my way through them. Which sounds terrible, really. I hate the idea of ‘working through’ books. No: I am going to read them, read them and hopefully enjoy them. It will be an experience.

Mercifully they are all quite short, and in a way that may help me because I think I’ll try to filter them in between the bigger books which will make it easier to pick the next book (I always struggle to pick the next book) and will make me feel like I’m making some progress. I think I might as well read them in order, and I’ll include Bonjour Tristesse, which I have already read, because I read it so long ago I don’t really remember much about it anyway.

Even more books, yikes!

So I started with Great Loves book 1: Doomed Love by Virgil.

Doomed Love is an extract of the Aeneid which is the story of Aeneas – son of Venus – a soldier who escaped the fall of Troy, travelled to Italy and became the seed through which the Roman empire was founded. I have not read The Aeneid so this little book is as much as I know about it. The extract deals with the time in which Aeneas and his people find themselves ashore in Africa in the city of Carthage which was founded by Dido. The Trojans have fled the fall of Troy, but since their flight have been sea-battered and thwarted in their attempts to make the Italian shores, said to be their destiny, by a vengeful Juno who desires the destruction of all Trojans. On the other side Aeneas is aided by his divine mother, and her desire to protect her progeny and see them achieve their destined end. Venus sees this sojourn in Carthage as a potential threat, an opportunity for Juno to further thwart and obscure their goal. So she determines to protect Aeneas from any potential threat by making Dido fall in love with him. Once in love it will be impossible for Juno to turn the queen towards evil ends. So Venus hatches a plot:

“But meanwhile Venus was pondering new plans and new devices. She decided to make Cupid assume the form and features of the charming Ascanius and go in place of him; he should give Dido the presents, and as he did so enflame her with a distraction of love, and entwine the fire of it about her very bones. For Venus could not help fearing the uncertainty of a home menanced by Phoenician duplicity; Juno’s savage will tormented her, and as night drew on her anxiety returned. Therefore she spoke to her winged son: ‘Son, you alone are my strength and all my might is in you. Son, you even scorn the Father’s Typhoean thunderbolts. Now I appeal to you, and humbly pray to your divine majesty for aid. You know how your brother Aeneas has travelled storn-tossed on the ocean round every coast solely on accunt of merciless Juno’s persistent hate, you have often sympathised with me in my sorrow. And now Phoenician Dido detains him and talks to him, coaxing him to stay with her. I am anxious about the outcome of any entertainment which Juno sanctions; she will certainly not be slow to act at this critical moment. Therefore I plan to forestall her by a trick of my own and enclose the queen in such a girdle of flames that no act of divine power may divert her from submitting, as I intend, to a fearce love for Aeneas.”

Cupid fulfils his mother’s demands and Dido dully falls in love with Aeneas. Meanwhile Aeneas, over successive nights, is encouraged to tell his story, the story of the fall of Troy and their travels thereafter. This comprises much of the story: their escape from Troy, the loss of Aeneas’s wife in the retreat, their travails over the seas, the death of his father, the aid of Mercury and the prophecies that guided them towards the shores of Italy, where their future empire would be built. As Aeneas talks, Dido falls more and more in love with him. Eventually they are married, but the fates and the Gods demand that Aeneas fulfil his destiny. Portends from Mercury remind him he has to leave, but the ensourcelled Dido cannot bear it. When her entreaties fall on deaf ears, there is only one path left to her:

“It was final. Dido was lost; and she saw with horror the fate starkly confronting her. Her one prayer now was for death. The sight of heaven’s vault was only weariness to her. And, as if to steel her will to fulfil her design and to part with the light of day, as she laid her offerings on the altars where incense burned, she saw a dreadful sight; for the holy water turned to black and the poured wine by some sinister transformation was changed into blood.”

And so the tragedy of Dido unfolds. Always the woman pays the price for a man’s love, or so it seems anyway. The more powerful the woman, the greater the price.

My reflection on this book is that it’s a strange, and highly tenuous component of a series entitled ‘Great Loves’ and whilst I was reading I found myself constantly questioning how it ended up in this set. That the set includes something classical is not odd, in fact I applaud it. It is good to have the opportunity to read one of the great classical texts when that might not be something you’d actively seek out, and the classics have no end of options when it comes to love stories. So why this one? About 3/4 of the book dealt with the fall of Troy and the difficulties the fleeing Trojans found themselves in afterwards. The love story, such as it was, felt highly secondary, almost negligable up to the point where Dido realises he love has been for naught. That it was a doomed love, doomed because as toys of the Gods there were other plans for these two, is not at odds. But was it a ‘great’ love? I didn’t think so. I suspect this coloured my whole experience of reading it, because whilst it was interesting in itself, and it definitely sparked an interest in perhaps reading the Aeneid in full at some point, as a love story it fell kind of flat. And it got a bit tedious. No question that Aeneas was going to kill himself for love. That’s the woman’s job. Dido had a lot going for her, and her story would have been an interesting one to follow once Aeneas had gone. Yet her role here was set. She was the one bound and she was the one who would see no future after Aeneas had move on. Sigh. So tedious.

So I am conflicted about this one. On the one hand it was an interesting read, I found the story of the aftermath of the downfall of Troy to be a fascinating one and I’d have happily read more about that. As a love story, a ‘great love’ story, it wasn’t great. It was mediocre. And through that lens, this didn’t feel like a success to me. When I remove the lens, it feels a lot better. I am sure there is a good reason for this inclusion, but I can’t help feeling that classical literature has much greater love stories to offer than this.


About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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5 Responses to Penguin Great Loves series; book 1 – Doomed Love by Virgil

  1. I’m the same as you, I have this set and several others knocking around the house! I corralled them all onto one shelf unit and keep meaning to get to them – but that’s another story… However, I’m interested in your thoughts on this one, and it sounds more as if it’s about the effects love can have, rather than the love itself. Maybe I’ll get onto this set soon…. ;D

    • bookbii says:

      Yeah I’d be really interested in your reflections on the set if you do get to it. I think here my problem was expectation rather than there being anything inherently wrong with the book itself. Perhaps I just need to approach with a more open mind.

  2. I am in a complete awe that such a series exists! I should really look into it, thanks. The other selections do look a bit strange to me to have ended up in this love section, but I see that each book is about the same size, and perhaps the editors were motivated by the length of a book, rather than strictly its adherence to the love theme.

    • bookbii says:

      You’re probably right though I think this book was an extract of a much longer book so they obviously chose it for a reason. I suspect I need to think about the set more as aspects of love rather than love stories per se. It’s a lovely set though and I’m looking forward to the next one (Abelard & Heloise) which I think may be more of a trad love story.

  3. Liz Dexter says:

    That’s a nice set! I used to like The Book People for that sort of thing!

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