The Red Queen (2004) is a novel ‘of a kind’, or so says its author. Writing it ‘has been full of difficulties’. This information is revealed in a prologue – the necessity for which suggests that there are indeed difficulties. Drabble has written a version of a memoir which she found compelling, and has created a character who finds the same memoir equally compelling. Some critics didn’t like it at all. I wasn’t sure right to the end whether it would come together to create a satisfying whole, but overall I think Drabble succeeds with it.
The first half of the book is a first person account of critical incidents in the life of a Korean Crown Princess, the Lady Hyegyong, sometimes called the Red Queen, who lived from 1735 to 1815. She wrote her memoirs in her old age; they are available in several translations. These memoirs are necessarily an interpretation of events, and while historians more or less agree on the facts of her life, they don’t agree on how valid her interpretation is. Drabble has appropriated these memoires and added another layer of complexity. She has given the Crown Princess an afterlife, and the benefit of ‘the knowledge of two centuries added to my own limited knowledge on earth’; she tells this version of her story in the light of modern political and psychological insights. But as Drabble notes, ‘None of us has full access to even our own stories’. Drabble hopes that her new story is a way of keeping the old story alive, and that the real Princess would have approved.
The Princess’s story is one of survival against the odds. She is taken from her family at the age of nine, and married to the Crown Prince, also aged nine. She thereafter lives almost entirely inside the royal Court, and endures its ‘speeches and ceremonies, hierarchies and protocol, discomfort and ritual, tradition and survival, robes and symbols, power and subjugation’. Korea is a ‘hermit’ state, frozen in tradition, cut off entirely from the West, and under the influence of China. The Court, which is almost entirely isolated from the rest of the country, is the site of arbitrary power, factional rivalries and summary executions. And if this were not enough, the Crown Princess has to deal with her husband’s madness and cruel death. It makes today’s North Korea a bit easier to understand.
The second half of the book introduces Dr Barbara Halliwell, an academic about to visit Seoul to give a conference paper on medical ethics. It is clear from the first half of the book that Dr Halliwell is to become the involuntary ‘ghost-writer’, or ‘emissary’ that the Crown Princess has chosen to keep her story alive. Barbara reads the memoires which she has somewhat mysteriously acquired, and is enthralled by them. She shares certain experiences with the Princess: ‘she, too, has been acquainted with sorrow, loss, fear, restriction, enclosure, premature death. She, too, has tried to live with madness.’ In Seoul, she visits some of the sites important to the Crown Princess, and has other adventures. These do not immediately appear to have anything to do with the memoires, and it was here that I started wondering where all this was going. But by the end, the reader can look back and see that there is a chain of events – most of which appear to be happenstance – that lead in a circle back to the Princess’s story. They also give some structure to Barbara’s story.
All this post modern playing around with narrative isn’t to everyone’s taste. Some critics thought that the Princess’s story was dramatic enough without the need to revive her as a ghost, though I wonder how many of them would ever have heard of her without Drabble’s version. And she didn’t set out to write history. ‘Instead, I have asked questions about the nature of survival, and about the possibility of the existence of universal transcultural human characteristics.’ These are questions that can be raised, but not really answered, by a work of literature. And we need to remember the Princess’s words, which are of course Drabble’s: ‘I am rather surprised that some of my readers seem to have missed the cautious and disclaiming note of irony that is and has ever been my dominant mode.’ Well, yes.