||A Review of: The Red Queen
by Barbara Julian
Are characters in fiction more or less real than figures in history?
Neither: both equally people the imagination of the living. Both
live through their stories. Oedipus and Hamlet have had at least
as much impact as, say, Frederick the Great or Catherine the Great
or any other "great". Margaret Drabble suggests that the
lives of both literary and historical figures manifest archetypal
themes and therefore express a Universal Self.
The Red Queen of Drabble's title-Lady Hyegyong, Crown Princess of
18th century Korea-is both a historical and literary figure, the
latter thanks to her memoirs which have recently received scholarly
attention in the West. Drabble became aware of them while preparing
for an international literary conference in Seoul in 2000. She
retells Lady Hyegyong's story in her own first-person narrative
voice, the voice long-time Drabble readers are familiar with: clear,
brisk, sometimes arch and a little headmistress-y as if to make you
pay attention. It is worth paying attention here: interesting
questions are considered about the power of the text, the relationship
between author and reader, and the universality of literature in a
The past has been called another country, and certainly Korea is
another country to us westerners, yet Margaret Drabble heard the
voice of the Crown Princess as clearly as she might hear the woman
next door. Being a novelist and gripped by the sound of this voice,
what did Drabble do? She invented a character who was gripped by
the sound of the voice, of course, and sent her off to a conference
in contemporary Seoul.
The Red Queen is divided into two main parts and a postscript. Part
one is Lady Hyegyong's account of her life in the violent, bizarre,
Confucian world of the Korean court, where she was the child bride
of a child Crown Prince who later went mad and was cruelly dispatched
by his own father. Part two is the story of Lady Hyegyong's 21st
century reader Barbara Halliwell, an academic on the global conference
trail. When Barbara read the Princess's memoir during a transcontinental
flight, she like Drabble felt possessed by it: "the book is a
trap, an infection, a time bomb." It changes her thinking and
colours her subsequent encounters as she passes the story on. Thus,
the 18th century Princess's story noses its way into 21st century
conversation and scholarly footnotes, not to mention fiction and
the Internet, speaking across time and cultures.
Anyone who leaves a written record-especially a vivid, intelligent
one-never completely dies, suggests Drabble, because the record is
forever re-interpreted and born again with every reader and
commentator. Drabble asks us to notice how we are creating a text
along with her as we read ("there are as many subtexts as there
are readers," says her modern heroine). She has us watch Barbara
wake up on the morning she flies to Seoul ("we watch her but
she ignores our intrusion"). She points out Barbara's clothes
and possessions and habits. Draw your own conclusions, she bids us.
She has us follow Barbara to the airport and fill in her story:
Barbara notices a red blouse for sale at the airport and we are
asked "is she wondering if she can justify the purchase ...
is she wondering what dress codes await her .?"
This questioning narrative is vintage Drabble, familiar to her
regular readers. She alternates realism with direct asides to the
reader, and blends tragic, comic, farcical and archetypal themes.
Here there is even a mystery nestled into the larger plot (what
anonymous figure sent Barbara the memoir in the first place?), and
a hint of supernaturalism.
Once Barbara arrives at her conference in Seoul and takes possession
of her anonymously sumptuous fifteenth floor hotel room, we are
treated to a contemporary comedy of manners very different from the
lurid revenge tragedy making up Lady Hyegyong's half of the book.
We have entered David Lodge territory (recalling his Changing Places
and Small World)-the world of jet-set intellectuals and conference
groupies. "Three days is a good length of time for a modern
romance," Barbara has reason to reflect.
But Barbara has more than romance to think about. Drabble has her
first heroine pursue Barbara with relentless posthumous purpose:
Barbara is possessed by the ghost in the memoir while she visits
the preserved historic sites of Korea's royal palaces. The princess
having written and being read, still lives. She still causes effects.
Barbara wonders why she has been selected as Lady Hyegyong's medium,
or in what way she has selected herself, "if she has a self,
which is also problematic." In the spirit of postmodern
relativism, selfhood is thus questionned, but in the second part
of the story, that having to do with the mating habits of intellectuals,
we see that "selves" come out in force. Of course: we
can't have either comedy or tragedy-which is to say literature-
without them. We are each the hero/heroine of our own story, as
well as "intertextual marginalia" in each others'.
Margaret Drabble has been researching brain neurology; we can tell
because she suggests that after being infected by Lady Hyegyong's
text and thus suffused with her personality, Barbara Halliwell's
brain is actually "re-wired". Experiences both inner and
outer are now known by science to alter the physical brain. The
Princess now accompanies Barbara and her re-wired brain during her
post-conference months back home in England, which make up the last
and shortest section of the book ("Postmodern Times").
At first this section seems to be an epilogue meant to provide
opportunity for more authorial musings on texts, selves and universal
self, but it turns out that we are not done yet. Like a symphony
that subsides in a false ending only to rise again in a last
crescendo, the story has one more plot twist and Drabble one last
narrative trick up her sleeve.
We are sorry when it's all over. We have been playfully challenged
to notice what exactly we have been doing, in the act of reading a
novel, and we have been well entertained in the process. We have
been lured from past to present and on into a suggested future, and
we are implicitly invited-as co-creators of the story-to continue
as we see fit. A new princess-child has arrived, in uniquely
postmodern circumstances. How will she do in our cross-cultural,
relativistic, shrinking world?
That is anyone's guess. Although she insists on the permanence of
universal themes which speak to a common human "self",
Drabble is postmodern enough to end her text not with a simple
denouement but by launching a new story. It will take a few decades
however to see how this one turns out. One feels sure that Drabble
intends, like the undying Lady Hyegyong, "with the benefit of
maturity and an afterlife, (to) devote some posthumous time to its