A Review of Margaret Drabble’s The Red Queen (by Bethany)

cover image of the red queen

I really wanted to like this novel. It’s about a literary and spiritual connection between an eighteenth-century Korean crown princess and a modern-day anthropology professor named Babs Halliwell. The first half of the book is told from the crown princess’ third-person-limited point of view; the second half appears to be told from the third-person-limited point of view of Dr. Halliwell. However, careful reading reveals that the entire novel is actually told in the point of view of the dead crown princess. No details are given about where this perspective is rooted physically (probably because it is physically located nowhere), but the crown princess has access to all of her memories from her lifetime, plus any information that she wants to know about the world as it has progressed since she died – making her third-person-limited point of view actually fairly omniscient. While none of the characters in this novel are Catholic, this book sort of supports this blog’s stance that purgatory is a lot like a giant library, where a person can grow wise after leaving her earthly life. Earthly life is just so damn distracting.

Perhaps the most interesting thing that I have to say about this novel is that The Red Queen is not the only book that I’ve read in the last few months that follows this premise. In the late summer, I read a young adult novel by E.L. Konigsburg called A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, which is told from the point of view of Eleanor of Aquitaine after she has ascended into heaven but before her errant husband, King Henry II, arrives. In that book, Eleanor has access to anything she wants to know now that she is in heaven, but during her time in Purgatory she was cut off from the omniscience of the dead (she was probably too busy reading Fifty Shades of Grey), so she doesn’t quite know everything. Before August of this year, I was totally unaware that tedious-novel-narrated-by-dead-queen was a genre. Now I feel like a bit of an expert on its conventions.

The crown princess in this novel was not born into royalty; she was chosen as a bride for young Prince Sado when she was still a child. The long-dead princess is well read in the works of the Marquis de Sade, and she often draws attention to the fact that while sadism was not named after her husband, he was in fact a sadist. To me, Prince Sado seems less like a sadist and more like good old-fashioned crazy. He reminds me of one of those Roman emperors who went insane because of lead poisoning. The princess gets used to using sly, underhanded manipulation in order to get what she wants and needs from her husband, her husband’s father, and, later, her son. I don’t see her as a manipulative person, necessarily – just as someone who learns early in her life that manipulation is the only tool in her toolbox and learns to wield it with skill.

The princess is different from other women of her time and place in that she writes a lengthy manuscript about her life. After she dies, she uses her newfound power of omniscience along with her well-honed power of manipulation to make sure that her manuscript – which is mouldering away on earth somewhere – gets into the mailbox of Dr. Halliwell right before she is due to fly to Korea for a conference. She sees Dr. Halliwell as her “emissary” and wants her to discover the manuscript, fall in love with its charms, and then use her position on a university faculty to make sure the manuscript is read, annotated, published and studied. It’s almost as if there’s an underground railroad for the memoirs of disenfranchised Korean royal oppressed women, and the crown princess has decided that Babs Halliwell is going to be its Harriet Tubman.

All of the above is well and good, I suppose. The crown princess’ portion of the novel is about 150 pages long, and for the first hundred pages it more or less had me hooked. After that, I really wanted to get to the present-day plot and fought the urge to skip ahead. I assumed (based on the blurb on the back of the book) that the book would get a lot more interesting once Dr. Halliwell was flying halfway across the world and going to a conference and taking side trips to see the castle where the crown princess lived and wrote her memoir. But here’s the thing: I forgot something. I forgot that I never like Margaret Drabble’s protagonists. I always like the premises of her books, and I sometimes enjoy the plots and some of the supporting characters, but I never like her protagonists. Margaret Drabble protagonists are the kind of orchid-like women who are always cold and can never sleep in hotels because they don’t like the smell of the pillows. In some ways, Babs Halliwell’s life is almost as circumscribed as the crown princess’s life – but it is not circumscribed by social customs or by the jackboots of the patriarchy. It’s circumscribed by her own fears and by her apparent ignorance of the fact that she is free – and this dichotomy is interesting, I guess. It’s ironic that in some ways the crown princess is freer than Dr. Halliwell is because her ongoing work on her memoirs gives her a life of the mind that even Dr. Halliwell doesn’t have, even though in most cases modern-day university professors have lives that are freer than the lives of just about any other human beings who have ever lived – and this irony is interesting, I guess.

It’s also worth mentioning that once Dr. Halliwell arrives in Korea, she starts having two different affairs: one with an internationally renowned scholar and one with a Korean gentleman who accidentally takes Dr. Halliwell’s bag at the airport. As frigid as Babs Halliwell is in other parts of her life, she does seem to be somewhat sexually promiscuous – all the time, not just on this particular business trip. I picture her a bit like Lilith from Cheers and Frasier. Her Korean luggage-appropriating paramour becomes her travel companion when she sneaks away from the conference and goes to visit places that she reads about in the crown princess’ memoirs. Her internationally-renowned-scholar paramour dies in her bed.

The raw ingredients of this book are good, but for me it never added up to something worth reading. The spiritual connection between the crown princess and Babs Halliwell never felt real to me – I was told that the connection was there, but while the connections between Babs and her two lovers actually do seem somewhat genuine, this connection is forced. Babs is way too busy washing out her underwear in the sink and otherwise engaged in the exhausting work of being a Margaret Drabble protagonist to ever devote time and emotional energy to any dead princess.

It’s true that two plus two equal four, but it’s also true that sometimes two plus two equal nothing at all because the person solving the problem got bored and is off somewhere watching an NCIS marathon on USA. Novels can be more than the sum of their parts, but they can also be less. This is the fourth novel by Margaret Drabble that I’ve read, and all four of them fall short on some level that has to do with the emotional fear and frigidity of their narrators. Drabble tries hard to make her plots intriguing, but her narrators are so far from intriguing that her plots and characters never fuse into an organic whole – and this bothers me.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Tedious Novels Narrated by Dead Queens, Margaret Drabble, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

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