The Red Queen

by Margaret Drabble
ISBN: 0771029063

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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 multicultural world.
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 study."

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