The Red Queen

The Red Queen

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by Margaret Drabble

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"Barbara Halliwell, on a grant at Oxford, receives an unexpected package - a memoir by a Korean crown princess, written more than two hundred years ago. A highly appropriate gift for her impending trip to Seoul. But from whom?" "The story she avidly reads on the plane turns out to be one of great intrigue as well as tragedy. The Crown Princess Hyegyong recounts in…  See more details below


"Barbara Halliwell, on a grant at Oxford, receives an unexpected package - a memoir by a Korean crown princess, written more than two hundred years ago. A highly appropriate gift for her impending trip to Seoul. But from whom?" "The story she avidly reads on the plane turns out to be one of great intrigue as well as tragedy. The Crown Princess Hyegyong recounts in extraordinary detail the ways of the Korean court and confesses the family dramas that left her childless and her husband dead by his own hand. Perhaps it is the loss of a child that resonates so deeply with Barbara...but she has little time to think of such things, she has just arrived in Korea." "She meets a certain Dr. Oo, and to her surprise and delight he offers to guide her to some of the haunts of the crown princess. As she explores the inner sanctums and the royal courts, Barbara begins to feel a strong affinity for everything related to the princess and her mysterious life." After a brief, intense, and ill-fated love affair, she returns to London. Is she ensnared by the events of the past week, of the past two hundred years, or will she pick up her life where she left it?

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Editorial Reviews

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.
From the Publisher


"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

San Francisco Chronicle

"A deliciously evocative tale of palace 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"

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.94(d)

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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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Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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The Red Queen 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
murry0 More than 1 year ago
This book was like two books in one, except that the two really had nothing to do with each other. I have no idea why the second half of this book was even written. Beacuase I found the second half to be so pointless I had to make myself read finish this book. I wish I hadn't have bought this book because now I'm going to sell it, I have no desire to read this one again. If someone can let me know what the author was trying to get at here maybe that will change my opinion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was pleasantly surprised when I read this book. Its captivating and difficult to put down once you start it. The story takes place during the Chosung Dynasty in Korea and is narrated through the eyes and memories of Lady Hyegjong's ghost. The first two parts of the book detail her life, which is a true story (though I believe in this novel the author added her own details). The third part is the Lady's ghost following a woman who she wishes to tell her story. Absolutely compelling and got me interested in reading her actual memoirs.