The Red Queen

The Red Queen

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by Margaret Drabble
     
 

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"A love song to literature."—Chicago Tribune

On the cusp of a trip to Korea, Barbara Halliwell receives an unexpected package with no return address. Inside she finds a centuries-old memoir by a Korean crown princess that details the mysteries of the Korean court as well as the dramas that left the princess childless and her husband dead by his

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Overview

"A love song to literature."—Chicago Tribune

On the cusp of a trip to Korea, Barbara Halliwell receives an unexpected package with no return address. Inside she finds a centuries-old memoir by a Korean crown princess that details the mysteries of the Korean court as well as the dramas that left the princess childless and her husband dead by his own hand. In Seoul, the intriguing Dr. Oo takes her through the courts themselves, an experience that leaves her as enchanted by him as by the mysterious life of the princess. She returns to England spellbound, wondering whether her life can ever return to normal—and whether she truly wants it to.

A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year A Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year

"An 18th-century Korean princess tells her harrowing life story in...Drabble's lovely, intelligent 16th novel. A-."—Entertainment Weekly

Margaret Drabble is the author of many novels, including The Seven Sisters, The Peppered Moth, and The Witch of Exmoor, and is the editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. She lives in London.

Reading Group Guide available at www.HarcourtBooks.com

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Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle

"A deliciously evocative tale of palace intrigue...one of the most inventive works of fiction in recent memory"
Village Voice

"Drabble's plain narrative tenaciousness gives her writing transparency and fire."
Chicago Tribune

"Drabble's tale is a love song to literature, an illustration as to how reader and subject become intertwined."
Entertainment Weekly

"Editor's Choice"
From the Publisher

PRAISE FOR THE RED QUEEN

"Drabble has written a moving tale of fate, moral responsibility and love."--San Francisco Chronicle

"Drabble's tale is a quiet love song to literature, an illustration as to how reader and subject become intertwined. As Yeats wrote, how can we know the dancer from the dance?"--Chicago Tribune

"An 18th-century Korean princess tells her harrowing life story in the lyrical first half of Drabble's lovely, intelligent 16th novel. A-." - Entertainment Weekly

Publishers Weekly
In her 16th novel, Drabble exhibits her characteristic ironic detachment in an elegantly constructed meditation on memory, mortality, risk and reward. Dr. Babs Halliwell, a 40-ish academic on sabbatical at Oxford, receives an anonymous gift on the eve of her departure for a conference in Seoul: a copy of the 18th-century Korean Crown Princess Hyegyong's memoir. In the crown princess's tumultuous time, women of the court could exercise power only through men. But the sly, coquettish and charmingly unreliable princess not only outlived her mad husband but also survived her brothers, her sons and innumerable palace plots. Her story and her spirit all but possess Dr. Halliwell, whose tragic personal losses and highly ritualized professional life cleverly and subtly mirror those of the crown princess. Upon her arrival in Seoul, Dr. Halliwell begins to come a bit unhinged as pieces of her long-submerged past threaten to catch up with her at last. "These things," she observes, "have long, long fuses." She innocently takes up with a generous Korean doctor, who becomes her tour guide in the jarringly foreign city. Soon, she's also flattered into embarking on a brief but intense affair with a famous and charismatic Dutch anthropologist who's busy grappling with ghosts of his own. Nimbly jumping across time and around the globe, Drabble artfully stitches together the disparate strands of both women's lives with "a scarlet thread... of blood and joy." The voices of the dead reach out to the living, where the ancient and the modern "pass through one another, like clouds of bees, like distant galaxies... like the curving spirals of a double helix." Agent, Peter Matson at Sterling Lord Literistic. (Oct. 4) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"With her usual deftness and clarity, Drabble crosses cultures and centuries...engrossing and provocative"
Library Journal
In her 16th novel, Drabble (The Seven Sisters) presents two parallel stories that of an 18th-century Korean crown princess and memoirist and that of Dr. Babs Halliwell, a fortyish British academic en route to Korea for a medical conference. While preparing to leave, Babs receives an anonymous gift, an English translation of the memoirs of an 18th-century Korean crown princess. The novel's first half recounts those memoirs, but from the perspective of a scholarly ghost that has been reading Eastern and Western literatures and philosophies for two centuries. As Babs's story unfolds, it reveals uncanny parallels to that of the crown princess. Like Drabble's other novels, this superb story shows signs of her fascination with connections genetic, historical, and chance-met. For Babs, the chance-met connections emerge from a three-day conference fling with an eminent European scholar, the results of which are surprising though perhaps not completely unexpected to longtime Drabble readers. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/04.] Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780156032704
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
10/03/2005
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
350
Sales rank:
938,419
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt


WHEN I WAS A LITTLE CHILD, I pined for a red silk skirt. I do not remember all the emotions of my childhood, but I remember this childish longing well. One of my many cousins came to visit us when I was five years old, and she had a skirt of red silk with patterned edgings, lined with a plain red silk of a slightly darker shade. It was very fashionable, and very beautiful. The gauzy texture was at once soft and stiff, and the colour was bold. Woven into it was a design of little summer flowers and butterflies, all in red. I loved it and I fingered it. That skirt spoke to my girlish heart. I wanted one like it, but I knew that my family was not as wealthy as my mother's sister's family, so I checked my desire, although I can see now that my mother and my aunt could read the longing in my eyes. My aunt and my cousins were delicate in their tastes, and like most women of that era, like most women of any era, they liked fine clothes. They came to envy me my destiny, and all its lavish trimmings- well, for a time I believe they envied me. But I was brought up in a hard school, and, as a small child, I had no red silk skirt, and I concealed my longing as best I could. This hard school served me well in my hard life. My mother, too, endured hardship in her early years. I used to wonder, childishly, whether it was my longing for red silk that brought all these disasters upon me and my house. For my desire was fulfilled, but no good came of it, and it brought me no happiness.

I was still a child when I received a red silk skirt of my own. It was brought to me from the palace, with other precious garments made for me at the queen's command. I was presented with a long formal dress jacket of an opaque leaf-green brocade, and a blouse in buttercup-yellow silk with a grape pattern, and another blouse of a rich pale foxglove silk. I had been measured for these robes by the matron of the court, and they were lifted out and displayed to me by a court official, with much ambiguous and bewildering deference. I think my response to these rich and splendid artefacts was lacking in spontaneous delight and gratitude, though I did do my best to conceal my fear.

The red silk skirt was not a gift from the palace, although it was included in the fine royal display of gifts. I was to learn later that it had been made for me by my mother, as a reward and as a compensation for my elevation. She had made it secretly, at night, hanging curtains over her windows to hide the lights in her chamber as she worked. This is how she performed many of her household tasks - discreetly, quietly, modestly. My mother liked to hide her thrift and industry, and she avoided compliments on her domestic labours. At this time, I knew nothing of this special undertaking on my behalf. I stared at the red silk skirt in ungracious silence.

My mother reminded me that I had once expressed a wish for such things, and she watched my face for smiles of gratitude. I did not remember having expressed this wish, but I confess that she was right to have divined it in me. But now I was too sad and too oppressed to raise my eyes to look at my new finery. My illustrious future hung heavily upon me. I was nine years old, and I was afraid.

I have been dead now for 200 years, but I have not been idle. I have been rethinking my story, and my history. I am not dead enough or modern enough to adopt the word 'her-story', in place of 'his-tory', but I feel compelled to suggest that this false, whimsical and, to my ear, ugly etymology could, if ever, be appropriately invoked here, for I am a prime and occasionally quoted example of the new 'her-story'. I see that I have an honourable though not wholly adequate mention in the first Encyclopedia of Life Writing, published in the Year of the West 2002, where I am incorrectly named as 'Princess Hong', and my memoir, even more oddly, is entitled 'In Burning Heart'. I do not know who bestowed that inappropriate title upon my work.

I wrote various accounts of my story during my earthly lifetime, and I must say that they were well written. I am an intelligent and an articulate woman, by any relativist and multicultural standards that you may choose to invoke. But each of those versions was written as a piece of special pleading. I have had to defend to death and beyond death the reputations of my father, my uncles, my brother, my clan. (Our clan, in our lifetime, was known as the Hong family, and we were, of course, as should go without saying, of ancient and distinguished lineage. In some versions of my story in the West, I am now given the title of Lady Hong: indeed, this name appears on the title page of what I believe to be the second Western translation of my work. This was not my name.) Above all, I have had to vindicate the tragic temperament and career of my unfortunate husband, whose horrifying end had such complex and painful reverberations for the history of our country, and for me. There were so many violent deaths in my family circle. I have even had to attempt to defend my immensely powerful yet deeply perplexed father-in-law, who seems to be the villain in some of these versions. Was he villain, victim or hero? With all my hindsight, and with the hindsight of many not always illuminating and often partial commentaries, I still cannot be certain. Death does not bring full light and full knowledge.

Many thought I was fortunate to die in my bed, an old woman of eighty years. Indeed, it is remarkable that I managed to live so long, in such turbulent times. But how could I have allowed myself to die earlier? Many times I wished to die, and sometimes I thought it my duty to die. But in universal terms, in human terms, it was my duty to live. My life was needed. My son and my grandson needed me. I could not abandon them. I survived for them. (I could even argue that my kingdom needed me, but that would be a grandiose claim, a masculine and dynastic claim, and I do not make it.) And now, 200 years later, with the knowledge of two centuries added to my own limited knowledge on earth, I intend to retell my story. I hope to purchase a further lease of attention, and a new and different readership. I have selected a young and vigorous envoy, who will prolong my afterlife and collaborate with me in my undying search for the meaning of my sufferings and my survival.

In life, I was called arrogant by many, and devious by some. I had many enemies. I suppose I was both arrogant and devious. And indeed I cannot look back on my past life without some sense of my innate superiority. Much ignorance and much stupidity and much fear surrounded me, particularly during my middle years. I was designed to be a poor and helpless woman, in a world where men held the power-and power was absolute, in those days-but I had eyes in my head, and a quick brain, and could see what was happening around me. At times I could make others dance to my tune. I myself survived, but I had my failures. The worst of them was this.

I lost my poor husband. I tried to save him, but, despite all my efforts, he had to be sacrificed. He was too mad, too perverse, too much destroyed by his place, his heritage, his nature. He was too hard a case for me. Even today, in these advanced and enlightened times, I think I would have been unable to save him. Even today, I think he would have met a similar fate, though in a different, to me unimaginable, but perhaps parallel manner. But that is a conclusion I have reached after many decades, after two centuries of reflection. And who knows, maybe even now some wonder drug is being prepared, a drug that could have saved him and his victims from the extremity of his terrors and the horror of his end? Medication for such diseases of the brain grows ever more precise, or so we are told. We have become expert in tracing chemical imbalances and the defective activity of our myriad of neurotransmitters. But these discoveries come too late for him and for me.

Copyright © Margaret Drabble, 2004

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