Margaret Drabble’s search for the Crown Princess

Jennifer Barclay, author of MEETING MR KIM: OR HOW I WENT TO KOREA AND LEARNED TO LOVE KIMCHI, reports from the Korean Cultural Centre on Dame Margaret Drabble’s lecture based on her novel THE RED QUEEN

Drabble shoesDame Margaret Drabble, CBE DBE, looks elegant with her hair in a natural bob and a touch of red lipstick. I read recently that she walks in the countryside a lot. She’s also wearing the cutest red shoes, flat and leather with bright green laces. For anyone who’s read The Red Queen, you instantly think of the scarlet knee-high socks Babs Haliwell finds in Seoul, and wonder if she saw them and longed for them in the same way.

Drabble’s novel The Red Queen takes you to the royal palace of eighteenth-century Korea through the eyes of the Crown Princess, and forward to contemporary Korea to a bedroom shared by two academics at a conference, one of whom finds her memoirs. It was called ‘utterly gripping’ by The Guardian and ‘witty, exhilarating’ by the Daily Telegraph. The Italian edition, she says, is packaged like a ghost story, and asks the question: ‘Can the dead speak to the living?’

Drabble has come to the Korean Cultural Centre to deliver a lecture, which as well as being deeply interesting and tightly plotted is delivered with a great sense of humour. Several years after the book’s first publication, she can address some issues it has raised, for example taking liberties with history. She dwells for a while on cultural appropriation, or ‘stepping on other people’s territory’, which interests her a lot, and universality – ‘is there anything we all have in common?’

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The history that intrigued her enough to write about a country she knew so little about (‘I can’t even read my own name in Korean!’) came from a translation of the real eighteenth century memoir which she read, as she says in the preface, ‘sitting in the sunshine in a London garden’. To Drabble, it was ‘like reading Hamlet or Macbeth but without knowing the ending’ – all poisoning and politics, and a character who has odd tantrums ‘rather like King Lear’.

Red Queen coverThe Crown Princess wrote her memoirs for political reasons; she lived to the age of eighty in a dangerous, violent court by playing it safe in order to outlive her enemies. Drabble overlaid onto this her ‘western interpretation’ that the Crown Princess was also writing to defend her husband as he descended into madness; and she added narrative colour by bringing out emotions she found in the original, such as a longing for a red dress. She also simplified the story, leaving out lots of cousins and aunts.

Although she took the care to compare three different translations of the original, she later discovered details not in the text, for example that the wife and mistress of the Crown Prince would have been forbidden to talk. The discrepancy that arises in her novel doesn’t faze her in the least: ‘If they were forbidden, they were doing it all the time.’ Besides, authors like Dan Brown show that getting history wrong ‘doesn’t always cause you trouble’.

The mingling of cultures, she says, helps us all to see more clearly, and ‘gives us oxygen’. A novelist who borrows from another culture may risk being accused of ignorance, but books are ‘a place we can meet culturally without too much flying!’

The Red Queen is published by Penguin. Thanks to Eunjeong Shin of the KCC for the images.

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