Reviewed by Megan Hutchins, writer
I was thrilled to stumble across THE MEMOIRS OF LADY HYEGYONG -- trying to read about Korean history in English before the Korean War has left me with precious little besides Wikipedia to look at. I fully expected it to be interesting, which it was. But Lady Hyegyong’s memoirs also proved to be one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve ever read.
Lady Hyegyong, despite being a Crown Princess, led a truly terrifying life. Her father-in-law, King Yeongjo, locked her husband, Crown Prince Sado, in a rice chest when the latter was twenty-seven and left him there to die. Her husband was severely mentally ill and was determined to be a threat to the dynasty.
The first three memoirs only nod to this horrific event, as speaking about it was forbidden. The mandated silence allowed for all manner of rumors and ill-fated political maneuverings that left Lady Hyegyong’s maternal family in ruins -- including the execution of her uncle and brother. By the last memoir, Lady Hyegyong’s grandson has ascended to the throne. She doesn’t want him to be mislead by the rumors that have churned through the palace for the past four decades, and finally lays down the events that led to her husband’s death.
The first three memoirs are poignant. But the last memoir reframed and changed everything I thought I’d known about her life. Perhaps most powerfully, Lady Hyegyong doesn’t give every last detail. Her understatements chilled me. She talks about her panic and horror at seeing her first severed head -- an unfortunate victim of her husband’s. The text leaves no doubt that there were many more, but she never gives such detail again. Many events she glosses over as simply being too painful to speak of.
Lady Hyegyong presents these events with complexity, blaming neither her father-in-law nor her husband, but speaking of a hundred unfortunate events that allowed her husband to become so violent, and so unchecked in his illness. It’s haunting and utterly tragic. When I finished, I told my husband he had to go read it because I desperately needed someone to talk to about these unforgettable memoirs.
Lady Hyegyong’s writing is clear, beautiful, and easily accessible. I am deeply thankful to the translator, JaHyun Kim Haboush, for his amazing work in making these available in English.
Sensuality: See below
Violence: See below
Mature Themes: Everything. Murder, rape, executions, severe mental illness, politics, abuse, depression, attempted suicide, death. As noted in the review, this isn’t a text that dramatizes graphic details. So “violence” is either very low (the memoirs aren’t any more gory than my review of it) or very high (it deals extensively with the repercussions of violent acts).