Margaret Drabble’s fiction often zeroes in on women whose values and expectations have been shaped by a pre-Beckhamite England of inner lives and noble gestures. Drabble’s plain narrative tenaciousness gives her writing transparency and fire. Even in 1987’s The Radiant Way, which concerns Thatcher-era affluence, decades of post-war cheese sandwiches lay behind the contemporary foie gras.
In the second half of The Red Queen, her 16th novel, we’re squarely in Drabble territory, as Dr. Barbara Halliwell, 40, flies from Oxford to Seoul to give an academic paper. It’s an intellectually loud yet otherwise sotto voce place where Jan van Jost, a Claude Levi-Strauss-style “conference star,” propositions Halliwell with dopey come-ons: “I’m in Room 1712. The year that Rousseau was born.” Exploring the city, Halliwell and Dr. Oo, a saintly Korean-born physician who lives abroad but has returned home to attend another simultaneous Seoul conference, discover a spot that sells Maxwell House, which Halliwell extols as though the American coffee had just been named the year’s best cabernet.
But the first half of The Red Queen takes place far from Drabble territory, and does not employ the second half’s coy point-of-view permutations (“Does she sleep alone? She has not always slept alone”) beloved by theory-of-the-novel types. This is “Ancient Times,” Drabble’s 149-page fictionalization of the memoirs of the 18th-century Korean crown princess Lady Hyegyong. The memoir, which Halliwell reads en route to Seoul, colors both her time there and the rest of her life. Drabble’s links between the Crown Princess and Halliwell—they both have mentally ill husbands and deceased sons, for starters—aren’t The Red Queen‘s forte. Instead of fusing the ancient and the contemporary in bulletproof ways (think Julian Barnes) that might render moot dull questions of coincidence or chance, Drabble drapes everything with a vague connectivity.
But her dreamy re-creation of the Crown Princess’s exacting voice is extraordinary. She is the widow of doomed Prince Sado, who has died in 1762—at the direction of his disapproving father, King Yongjo—having agonized for days inside a locked rice chest. The Crown Princess operates as an elegant ghost, floating across the centuries, privy to the knowledge of all subsequent time. Accordingly, she has continued to refine her already inquisitive mind, occasionally sending an “envoy” to earth. She tells of her husband’s battles with himself and his father, of baroque court activities, of her own family and children as they exist in the luxuriant and grotesque life of the hyper-political Korean court. She remains sympathetic toward her husband, who grows murderous because of a psychosis involving clothing (individual garment choices unhinge him). “It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of the rigid dress codes of this period,” the Crown Princess explains, “within the court and beyond it. Fabrics held destinies, and colours spoke of faction and fate.” Reasoning through a thicket of lingering Confucianism, which does not recognize the existence of the human soul, the Crown Princess determines to find her own.