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Contemporary Literature 48.4 (2007) iv, 477-498

An Interview with Margaret Drabble
Conducted by Young-Oak Lee

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Figure 1
Margaret Drabble
[End Page iv]

This is an interview with a British author who crossed cultural boundaries to write about Korea, by a Korean professor of English literature whose entire career has crossed cultural boundaries to embrace Western literature. Margaret Drabble's 2004 historical novel about Korea, The Red Queen: A Transcultural Tragicomedy, fascinated me as a scholar and as a Korean—first, because of Drabble's novelistic telling of this part of Korean history, and second, because of the cultural bridge that a British author must have crossed to come to an understanding of this ancient and foreign story of a Korean princess. I was intrigued that Drabble's literary imagination could bring forth, depict, and recast a horrifying scene as an insightful allegory from which arises human understanding and growth. Drabble visited Korea before she wrote the book, but for no more than ten days, and yet she was able to create through her imagination a world of wonder and humanity using Korean materials.

Margaret Drabble has been writing for more than four decades. She was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, in 1939, and educated at Cambridge University, where she majored in English. She married an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company and did some acting herself. The first of her seventeen novels, A Summer Birdcage, was published in 1963. Drabble explored the subject of women and their lives, a then unexamined realm, even in her prefeminist novels in the sixties. Her continuing engagement with the topic led her to write this transcultural novel involving Korean women as well as British. [End Page 477]

As Drabble told me during the course of this interview, in 2000 she was invited to a literary conference held in Seoul and while preparing for it was told of the memoirs of Lady Hyegyˇong Hong, a crown princess in eighteenth-century Korea who between 1795 and 1805 wrote four accounts of events in her long life. The version of her work that Drabble read was The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyˇong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea, translated, introduced, and annotated by JaHyun Kim Haboush and published by the University of California Press in 1996. Drabble's lifelong obsession with women's roles held her captive to Lady Hong's powerful, horrid story. Lady Hong writes about what she witnessed—her young husband put to a slow death by his own father, the king.

Drabble returned to Seoul to attend the same conference in 2004, that year titled "Writing for Peace." (The conference, held every four years, is organized and funded by the Daesan Foundation.) This time she brought with her a new novel, The Red Queen: A Transcultural Tragicomedy, based on Lady Hong's Memoirs.

The Red Queen involves two women, the Korean crown princess and a contemporary British woman. Lady Hong was selected to marry the crown prince at the age of nine and survived the premature death of her husband and the ensuing court politics of eighteenth-century Korea. In Drabble's novel, her story becomes connected to that of Dr. Barbara (Babs) Halliwell, a contemporary British academic, to whom a copy of the Memoirs is mysteriously given. Babs, on a flight to Seoul to give a talk at a conference, reads the book and finds herself totally haunted by the story.

The first half of The Red Queen is narrated by the ghost of the crown princess. Then Babs takes center stage. While in Korea, Babs feels an increasing affinity with the princess. Babs's husband has gone mad, possibly as the result of his difficult relationship with his father. Both women have suffered grievous loss. In the juxtaposition of these two lives, the two-hundred-year-old story of the crown princess of Korea sheds light on the life of the British modern woman.

This interview was held in the lobby of...


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