‘The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng’ (Review)

My first week of #WITMonth reviews took us to the Indian Ocean, where we witnessed the issues that poverty brings.  However, if you think that wealth solves all problems, then today’s post will act as a counterweight to that idea.  This time around, we’re brushing shoulders with royalty as we go back in time to look at court life in eighteenth-century Korea, with our guide an elderly lady who has seen it all in her decades in the palace.  Unfortunately, not everyone managed to come through the experience unscathed, and as a cautionary tale, she’s finally decided to let the world know the truth about events behind palace walls.  Believe me – I’m not just using a Buzzfeed-esque hook when I promise you that number four will shock you…

*****
The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea (translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush) is a collection of four lengthy non-fiction pieces written by the titular noblewoman.  The daughter of a scholar and later career politician, Lady Hyegyŏng was chosen at the age of nine to become the wife of the young Crown Prince, Prince Sado, in 1744, and was mother to King Chŏngjo and grandmother to King Sunjo.  Alas, her husband was never to become king, dying in 1762.  How?  Well, more on that later…

The first of the memoirs, written in 1795 for her nephew after his request for more information about his family history, is an interesting piece focusing both on Lady Hyegyŏng’s relatives, the Hong family, and her own early life.  After an idyllic childhood, she is shocked to learn that she is a candidate for marriage and is overwhelmed when chosen as the Crown Prince’s bride.  There follows a tense, exhausting period of learning how to be a princess before she is thrust, at her tender age, into the maelstrom of court life.

Once her early years are out of the way, much of the subsequent writing here, and in the second and third memoirs (addressed to her grandson Sunjo in 1801 and 1802 respectively), concerns her family fortunes.  You see, life at court was a brutal, cut-throat affair, and Lady Hyegyŏng has to watch on as jealous rivals attack her nearest and dearest:

Since time immemorial, no queen or royal consort has suffered what I have in my life; no other family has been put to the trials that mine has met.  The way of Heaven is all-knowing.  The present King is benevolent and filial.  I trust that, even if I were to die without seeing it, he will distinguish right from wrong; he will avenge my suffering and bitterness.
p.198 (University of California Press, 2013)

The good lady isn’t exaggerating.  Her father, Hong Ponghan, intimately acquainted with the elderly King Yŏngjo, is constantly on his guard, under siege from jealous rivals and fearing the king’s displeasure, while other members of her family fall victim to false accusations.  Having the king clear your name later is little comfort when you’re already six feet under.

It’s all fascinating stuff to begin with, but if I’m honest, the style has become a little repetitive by the time we reach the third memoir.  The people and events may change slightly from letter to letter, but the preoccupation with rehabilitating the Hong family name remains the same, and there’s too much empty bluster, an insistence on the wonderful merits of the Hongs and the cartoonish villainy of their political rivals.  If that was all there was to Lady Hyegyŏng’s memoirs, then I suspect they may have been forgotten, a mere footnote in Chosŏn (Joseon) history.  But then there’s the fourth memoir, that of 1805…

*****
The year is important here as it marks a change in the political scene.  King Sunjo, who was still a child when his father, King Chŏngjo, died in 1800, has now come of age, and after a sort of four-year interregnum where others were pulling the strings, he’s now in full control.  At the age of seventy, and with her grandson safely ensconced on the throne, the lady decides the time has come for another of her memoirs, and this time the gloves are off.  There’ll be no more hiding behind ‘unfortunate events’ and vaguely described laments: it’s time for the old woman of the court to lay the rumours of what happened to her husband to rest.

What follows is a brutal, systematic description of the events leading up to a crime so horrific it takes your breath away.  In 1762, King Yŏngjo summoned his son, Prince Sado, to his palace.  He had a rice casket brought in and ordered the prince to get inside.  The casket was then sealed, and the prince expired eight days later.

I bet you weren’t expecting that…

This fourth memoir, then, written to clear up the misinformation about the event, takes us through the years leading up to the disaster to explain how it all came to pass.  While Lady Hyegyŏng’s aim is to show how there was fault on both sides, wanting to avoid people believing that this was the act of a tyrant, or the only way of saving the dynasty, her earlier fawning and obfuscation is largely absent.  Here she writes with a psychological edge, examining the causes of what modern readers will immediately identify as the prince’s mental illness.  The unfortunate Prince Sado, a rather slow and pensive child, was unable to cope with the demands of his quick and irascible father, with inevitable consequences:

Thus, if the weather was cloudy or if there was thunder on a winter day, the Prince-Regent instantly grew nervous and fearful lest he receive yet another berating from his father.  Before long, he was frightened and anxious over everything; the illness developed gradually as his sense of terror spawned unwholesome imaginings and strange notions.  How sad that His Majesty, an extraordinarily virtuous and supremely benevolent king and a remarkably intelligent and observant man, did not realize that his precious heir was growing ill. (p.258)

Alas, King Yŏngjo only understands the effect years of neglect and anger have had on his son when it’s too late.  His tough love, and his attempts to make the boy into a worthy successor as quickly as possible, have backfired spectacularly, and after a few attempts to repair the damage, his patience is at an end, and a decision is reached.

It’s here that we reach perhaps the most succesful part of the whole work.  Having described the causes of her husband’s illness, and brought us to sympathise with the unfortunate prince, Lady Hyegyŏng suddenly pulls the rug from under our feet.  You see, this isn’t just a case of a mad king disposing of anyone who annoys him – poor Sado isn’t as innocent as we thought, as we learn from a conversation he has with his father:

In his replies that day the Prince said, “When anger grips me, I cannot contain myself.  Only after I kill something – a person, perhaps an animal, even a chicken – can I calm down.”
“Why is that so?” His Majesty asked.
“Because I am deeply hurt.”
“Why are you so hurt?”
“I am sad that Your Majesty does not love me and terrified when you criticize me.  All this turns to anger.” (p.287)

This sudden twist is both horrifying and enthralling for the modern reader as we experience the prince’s homicidal tendencies through the eyes of his poor mother.  As the young man’s illness progresses, and his behaviour becomes ever more dangerous, we begin to understand that the king, while not without blame here, is in a rather difficult position.  Although, compared with his daughter-in-law…

*****
The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng is very much an academic work, but despite the foot- and endnotes and occasional repetition, it makes for a surprisingly readable book.  It’s an obvious labour of love for Kim Haboush, and the effort she put into her work is reflected here.  Yes, we have all the required academic paraphenalia (family trees, a detailed introduction and copious notes), but for the general reader it’s the voice of the lady herself that is far more important, and the translator catches this nicely.  We move from the bright tone of the memoir (which comes from a different manuscript to the others) to the more formal, and guarded, style of the second and third pieces.  When it comes to the final memoir, and the stunning final conflict between the king and his son, the accomplished voice cannot mask the pain she feels in making these dramatic revelations.

Overall, The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng is simply a stunning piece of historical writing.  Some of you may have tried Japanese examples of court writing, such as The Pillow Book, The Diary of Lady Murasaki and As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, and if you enjoyed those, you’ll probably like this one even more as it combines the description of life at court with a genuinely unique story.  It’s a fascinating tale of a turbulent time, a woman’s take on the intrigues, deaths and turmoil of the era, so if you’re looking for something a little different for #WITMonth, this might just be your next choice 🙂

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