In The Red Queen, Margaret Drabble works her literary magic, creating a tale that covers centuries, connecting the lives of two women in unexpected ways. There is a thread of history throughout, a scarlet thread that winds itself through hearts and lives, forging intimate attachments invisible to the naked eye. Looping past the men and connecting the women through a conspiracy of passion, hope and dreams, Drabble's exquisite attention to detail stitches lives together in a fine blend of history and fiction.
Eighteenth-century Korea is insular, isolated from the rest of the world by choice, a structured society impervious to the evolution of the rest of civilization. The Crown Princess Hyegyoung, wed at ten, spends her life behind palace walls. Because circumstances put them together much of the time as children, the Crown Princess is privy to her husband's mental disintegration, a condition exacerbated by his father. King Chongjo exerts extraordinary effort denigrating his son and heir. Eventually, the Royal Grandson is delegated Grand Heir to the throne, after his father is found unfit to rule.
The Crown Princess's memoir falls into the hands of Barbara Halliwell, temporarily a professor at Oxford, who is flying to Seoul for a conference. Someone has sent Barbara the memoir of the Crown Princess, which the professor reads on her flight, inexplicably enthralled by the two hundred-year old tale and the violent world the Princess inhabited. The princess is present throughout Barbara's time at the conference, as though perched on her shoulder, whispering secrets, reminding, "Don't forget me."
The Princess refuses to be dismissed, desiring that her story be kept alive in the popular consciousness. Protocol and power dominated the Crown Princess's life; Oxford, as well, is ruled by propriety and custom, tradition obviously the common ground between the two women, structure as a means of controlling social order.
Drabble's tale of two women is contextually rich, layered with the weight of centuries. Essentially a story about the complicated lives of women, love, loss and one's place in the world, The Red Queen reaches across the centuries to awaken long dormant memories for Barbara Halliwell. With an awakened sense of purpose, Halliwell envisions a different life for herself, one greatly enriched with unexpected promise.