Margaret Drabble

"The Red Queen"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 19, 2004)

"What a strange mixture our palace lives were, with their mixture of fear and violence, of boredom and elegant inertia."

With the announced intention of writing a "transcultural tragicomedy," Margaret Drabble tells us that this novel will ask questions "about the nature of survival, and about the possibility of the existence of universal transcultural human characteristics." Using the real memoirs of an 18th century Korean Crown Princess as the inspiration for her novel, Drabble creates her own version of these memoirs by Crown Princess Hyegyong, who met and married Crown Prince Sado in 1744, when they were both ten years old.

As the Princess, looking back as an adult, describes her life as a child bride in the Korean court, Drabble relates these events to what was happening in the rest of the world during this same time frame, placing the events within the context of world history. The Enlightenment had already begun in Europe, and the Princess suggests that she has read the works of Voltaire. Catherine the Great was the same age as the Princess, the Jesuits had spread Catholicism in the Far East and were making inroads in Korea, and contact with the west for trade was taking place. Within the Korean court, however, their own traditions held firm, with severe punishments being meted out for anyone who embraced change, especially the religious changes from Confucianism to Catholicism.

The Princess tells her story for the first half of this novel. Introduced to the court when she is age ten, she is selected to be one of three candidates for marriage to the Crown Prince, who is also ten. When she is chosen to be his bride, she is required to abandon her own family for life in the court, marrying the prince at ten and consummating the marriage at fifteen. We hear her voice as she relates the sad changes her husband undergoes after their marriage, as he gradually becomes more and more fearful, and eventually insane, committing atrocities, including murder, and going unpunished, protected by the court itself. "I failed my husband," she says, unable to stop his rampages. Describing her relationships with the Three Queenly Majesties (her mother-in-law, the Dowager Queen, and even the king's first wife), her training to be queen, the birth of her children and their fates, and her life in the claustrophobic court, she breathes life into her descriptions of her unusual existence.

In a voice that is honest and fair, she explains why court life is difficult for her, but her language, not surprisingly, is elegant and rather formal. She keeps her distance, not really sharing her inner thoughts and feelings. As she leads up to the story of the traumatic death of her husband, the reader can put himself/herself into the Princess's place to imagine the horrors, but the Princess herself remains apart. She is unable to prevent the outcome--or to change the destiny that fate has in store for her and her son.

At this point in the novel, time fast-forwards to Babs Halliwell, a contemporary scholar on a Hanbury Foundation Fellowship in Oxford, about to go to Korea to deliver a paper at a conference on globalization. Drabble creates obvious parallels between the life of the Princess and that of Babs Halliwell from the outset of Part II. In describing her room in Oxford, for example, Drabble comments on Halliwell's wonderful view, saying "She must be a princess of her time. What has she done to deserve these riches? Has she inherited them, or married them, or earned them? What is her tenure?" As Halliwell boards the plane for Korea, she brings with her a copy of the Princess's memoirs, "sent to her anonymously, packaged in cardboard, through," and when she reads it in flight, she is consumed by the memoir.

No reader will miss the parallels between the life of Halliwell and that of the Princess: "The Princess is taking her over bodily and mentally…[She] has entered her, like an alien creature in a science-fiction movie." We learn about Babs Halliwell's own background, her tragedies, the difficulties of her own marriage to a mentally ill husband, and her uncertainties about the future. Drabble also draws additional parallels between actual events from around the world, as depicted in contemporary newspapers, and what has happened in the life of the Princess, in an effort to make connections across cultures and time. At one point Babs Halliwell and a friend even meet Margaret Drabble, though "They did not tell her, at this stage, that they had argued about [her] book. Polly had liked it better than Babs had liked it."

Readers familiar with other cultures may find Drabble's observations to be obvious and her deliberate parallels to be lacking in subtlety. She explains the parallels, rather than allowing the reader to discover them. The construction feels artificial, and her tone is sometimes a bit arch. The diary of the Princess, however, is especially interesting for the light it casts on a way of life almost unknown to contemporary westerners, and for this the novel is both important and fascinating.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 24 reviews

Chapter excerpt and reading guide from The Red Queen at HMH

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Bibliography: (with links to

*Trilogy describing the experiences of three friends living through the 80s


Movies from books:

  • A Touch of Love (adapted from The Millstone) 1969


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Book Marks:


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About the Author:

Margaret DrabbleMargaret Drabble was born in Sheffield on 1939. She was educated at the Mount School, a Quaker boarding school in York, and read English at Newnham College, Cambridge. She became an actress and worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon before her first novel, A Summer Birdcage, the story of the relationship between two sisters, was published in 1963.

The Millstone won a John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; Jerusalem the Golden won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; and, The Needle's Eye won the Yorkshire Post Book Award.

Margaret Drabble is also the author of biographies and is editor of both the fifth (1985) and sixth (2000) editions of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

She is married to writer and biographer Michael Holroyd and lives in London and Somerset. Her older sister is the Booker Prize winner A.S. Byatt. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014