What a pleasure, in the current spate of historical novels set in China or Japan, to come upon a vividly written, fast-paced tale of 19th-Century Korea, the generally ignored, poor country cousin of the Orient. Pressured by Russia, fought over by China and Japan, Korea has been called The Hermit Kingdom for good reason. One forgets that it had its own high-handed royal court and that it retains a distinctive language.
Diana Brown sends an unbelieving young English woman, Marigold Wilder, to Korea as a missionary in an act of penance. Marigold has already met an American adventurer of good family, Mark Banning, in the country vicarage of her girlhood and believes that she has rescued her younger sister, Primrose, from being "ruined" by him. Once in Korea, Marigold, an amateur photographer, records the extremes of poverty and wealth that she encounters, and, after learning to speak Korean, she acts as interpreter for Queen Min and other women of the court. She also takes part in the social life of Seoul's European and American community, made up largely of diplomats and a few businessmen and their wives.
To no one's surprise, Mark Banning arrives on the scene. Marigold, rather reluctantly engaged to marry a member of the Anglican mission force, is torn between her sense of duty and her body's response to Mark's physical attraction, even though she knows he is something of a womanizer and is making a cuckold of the Russian minister. When a chance to go into the interior presents itself, Marigold, with camera and gun, risks the dangers of the Diamond Mountains to carry a message from one of the queen's noblewomen to her lover, who has been exiled to the northern court of the queen's ambitious brother.
Caught in both physical and political danger, Marigold is rescued more than once by Mark, but in ways that lead her to suspect that he is more than a mere adventurer. He may be a spy for a foreign power or even a double agent. Marigold in turn rescues Mark by shooting an enormous white tiger plumb between the eyes and is viewed with awe.
In the northern court, Marigold witnesses the horrors of physical torture and the humiliation endured by women. She is forced to record pornographic scenes with her camera in order to save herself and the life of a helpless girl. She escapes to a monastery where she shaves off her red curls and goes into hiding.
Far-fetched as much of this sounds, the details of Korea's inner torment and conflict are faithful to historic fact. The takeover by the Japanese and the court's destruction complete the humiliation of this self-willed, splintered nation that even today, divided and occupied, cannot find peace.
But what future can Marigold and Mark hope for? That, dear reader, must be left for you to discover. Meanwhile, a word or two on judging this sort of popular novel. It is not "literature" in the academic sense of that word, nor is it meant to be. It is not undiluted history, but it does give the reader a great deal of accurate information on the past and communicates it without pain. Beyond these merits, at its best it actually entertains. Tell it not in Gath--or the Groves of Academe-- but this sort of novel can be a lot of fun, and it takes a considerable talent to create one convincingly.
Noting anachronisms is a reviewer of historical fiction's special delight. Brown, though not generous with them, does come a cropper here and there. To a son of the manse like myself, her most disturbing one is her habit of referring to members of the Anglican clergy as "Reverend Farquhar" or "Reverend Wilder," making them sound like contemporary presidential candidates, instead of giving them at the very least their correct 19th-Century dignity as "the Rev. Mr. Farquhar" or "the Rev. Mr. Wilder." Frivolous as Anglicans are known to be, it is difficult to believe that, even granted an improbable taste for playing poker or black jack, and a clergyman would refer to a lady like Marigold as an "ace in the hole," or comment on someone's behavior "when the chips were down." But these are all forgiven in the splendid pace and action of "The Blue Dragon," with its mixture of accurate history, risky intrigue and titillating romance.