The Red Queen
WHEN I WAS A LITTLE CHILD, I pined for a red silk skirt. I do not remember
all the emotions of my childhood, but I remember this childish longing well. One
of my many cousins came to visit us when I was five years old, and she had a
skirt of red silk with patterned edgings, lined with a plain red silk of a
slightly darker shade. It was very fashionable, and very beautiful. The gauzy
texture was at once soft and stiff, and the colour was bold. Woven into it was a
design of little summer flowers and butterflies, all in red. I loved it and I
fingered it. That skirt spoke to my girlish heart. I wanted one like it, but I
knew that my family was not as wealthy as my mother's sister's family, so I
checked my desire, although I can see now that my mother and my aunt could read
the longing in my eyes. My aunt and my cousins were delicate in their tastes,
and like most women of that era, like most women of any era, they liked fine
clothes. They came to envy me my destiny, and all its lavish trimmings- well,
for a time I believe they envied me. But I was brought up in a hard school, and,
as a small child, I had no red silk skirt, and I concealed my longing as best I
could. This hard school served me well in my hard life. My mother, too, endured
hardship in her early years. I used to wonder, childishly, whether it was my
longing for red silk that brought all these disasters upon me and my house. For
my desire was fulfilled, but no good came of it, and it brought me no happiness.
I was still a child when I received a red silk skirt of my own. It was brought to me from the palace, with other precious garments made for me at the queen's command. I was presented with a long formal dress jacket of an opaque leaf-green brocade, and a blouse in buttercup-yellow silk with a grape pattern, and another blouse of a rich pale foxglove silk. I had been measured for these robes by the matron of the court, and they were lifted out and displayed to me by a court official, with much ambiguous and bewildering deference. I think my response to these rich and splendid artefacts was lacking in spontaneous delight and gratitude, though I did do my best to conceal my fear.
The red silk skirt was not a gift from the palace, although it was included in the fine royal display of gifts. I was to learn later that it had been made for me by my mother, as a reward and as a compensation for my elevation. She had made it secretly, at night, hanging curtains over her windows to hide the lights in her chamber as she worked. This is how she performed many of her household tasks - discreetly, quietly, modestly. My mother liked to hide her thrift and industry, and she avoided compliments on her domestic labours. At this time, I knew nothing of this special undertaking on my behalf. I stared at the red silk skirt in ungracious silence.
My mother reminded me that I had once expressed a wish for such things, and she watched my face for smiles of gratitude. I did not remember having expressed this wish, but I confess that she was right to have divined it in me. But now I was too sad and too oppressed to raise my eyes to look at my new finery. My illustrious future hung heavily upon me. I was nine years old, and I was afraid.
I have been dead now for 200 years, but I have not been idle. I have been rethinking my story, and my history. I am not dead enough or modern enough to adopt the word 'her-story', in place of 'history', but I feel compelled to suggest that this false, whimsical and, to my ear, ugly etymology could, if ever, be appropriately invoked here, for I am a prime and occasionally quoted example of the new 'her-story'. I see that I have an honourable though not wholly adequate mention in the first Encyclopedia of Life Writing, published in the Year of the West 2002, where I am incorrectly named as 'Princess Hong', and my memoir, even more oddly, is entitled 'In Burning Heart'. I do not know who bestowed that inappropriate title upon my work.
Copyright © Margaret Drabble, 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher, Harcourt, Inc.
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