The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble

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The Independent Culture

Margaret Drabble is worried about what we are about to read. The Red Queen is the story of the Crown Princess of Korea, married in 1744 to Prince Sado, son of the Korean King. In the Prologue, Drabble confesses that "I feel some anxiety about the way in which I have appropriated this strange material." She insists her novel is neither historical fiction, nor fact, but simply a possible version of the Princess's life. "I have turned her story into a novel, of a kind. This is because I am a novelist, and, for better and for worse, writing novels is what I do."

The Red Queen is categorically for the better and not for the worse, but Margaret Drabble's attempt to stir together the historical and contemporary narratives sometimes produces the curdled effect of gloss paint mixed with emulsion. Dr Babs Halliwell, a present day academic in her early forties, stumbles across the Crown Princess's story on a flight to Seoul. The two women's lives merge and overlap as the novel progresses. Both women have husbands who are acutely mentally ill. Both have sons who die in childhood.

The first half of the novel, "Ancient Times", is narrated by the Crown Princess. The second, much better half, "Modern Times and Postmodern Times", is dedicated to Dr Halliwell. The connections between the two women are way too contrived and overstated at times, as though Margaret Drabble is scared her readers may not be concentrating quite hard enough. The more intriguing connection is between Drabble's The Red Queen and her sister A S Byatt's novel Possession in which she too combines a contemporary and historical narrative. In The Oxford Companion to English Literature Margaret Drabble praises Byatt's novel as "remarkable for its convincing pastiches of 19th-century literary style". Could this judgement that her sister faked the past so brilliantly have contributed to Drabble's decision to make her own historical character speak to us in a modern idiom?

Unfortunately the Crown Princess's anachronistic musings are the least convincing elements of the novel. She is very taken with the idea of giving half-baked political lectures from way beyond the grave. "You may think that your society lays too much emphasis on grades and tests and examinations and some of you may argue that they cause much psychological damage - well, all I can say is that I believe that our society in this respect was even worse." And she's keen on passing the time, now she's dead, by researching medical topics on the internet, allowing her to make diagnoses of her family's ailments. "Mother wept day and night, and she developed an eating disorder that made her refuse all food. I suppose she was depressed. Was it a form of postnatal depression? Such a condition was not officially recognised or named in those days."

The Red Queen brings a whole new range to the term "ghost-writer". Rarely can it have been a more appropriate or meaningful term. This is a novel about a ghost who has engineered that 200 years after her death, her story should be ghost-written by a famous novelist who hears her story from a fictitious academic who professes not to believe in ghosts and yet who changes the course of her life once she has read the memoirs of a long-dead princess. There are frequent references in this novel to the rights and wrongs of plagiarism. So what are we to call The Red Queen? Historical faction? Postmodern history? Legitimate appropriation? Or perhaps we should simply categorise it as Margaret Drabble herself does on page one. "The Red Queen: a transcultural tragicomedy". And then simply enjoy it for what it is: a delicate, scented fruit, scarred and bruised here and there, but full of life nevertheless.