The Court Dancer
Translated by Anton Hur
NOTE: The book lists the Asian characters’ family names before their personal names, and I have followed suit. Real-life historical figures are referred to by their surnames.
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
I hate to admit it, but I’m kinda glad I didn’t spend money on this. There are books that can completely sap all desire to read, and this happened to be one of them – not because it was bad, but because I didn’t find it particularly compelling. As an exploration of Korean history and politics, it was fascinating. As a historical romance, it left me wishing the characters were more memorable.
Set at the tail end of the Joseon dynasty, The Court Dancer begins with a nameless girl, born into poverty and orphaned young, addressed mainly as “Baby” by the people who love her. Following the deaths of her parents, she is raised by a woman named Suh – referred to throughout the book as “the woman Suh” – whose younger sister is a lady in the court of King Gojong and Queen Myeongseong. The Lady Suh takes an interest in Baby and starts taking her to court, where she unintentionally catches the Queen’s eye and quickly becomes one of her favorites. Meanwhile, the woman Suh agrees to board Catholic missionary Jean Blanc and his ward, Kang Yeon, a (mostly) mute Korean boy. Recognizing Baby’s talent for mimicry, Blanc teaches her conversational French before he continues on his journey. Following Blanc’s departure, Yeon stays with Suh and is raised alongside Baby, whom he names Silverbell. Eventually they both grow up to hold positions at court: Silverbell becomes a court dancer, and is known as either Suh Yuhryung or Lady Attendant Suh while at court; Yeon becomes a court musician, a position he pursued in order to stay close to Silverbell.
It should be an idyllic existence, but their lives are shadowed by the possibility of an uprising against Queen Myeongseong, whose desire to engage with the outside world is viewed as a threat to Korean social order. While Korea is increasingly pressured by China, Japan, and others, the Queen struggles to balance foreign interests with Korean autonomy, surviving multiple assassination attempts throughout her reign. In the midst of this political chaos and upheaval, the court is visited by Victor Collin de Plancy, the first French diplomat to Korea. He is supposed to represent French interests but instead becomes obsessed with Silverbell, and, after declaring his love to the King against staunch advice from wiser heads, he is allowed to take her back to France with him, with the understanding that he will marry her. Before her departure, the King formally releases her from his court and names her Yi Jin, bestowing upon her the Imperial family name. As usual, there’s a rub: though he says he will marry Jin, de Plancy fails to carry through on his rash promises and instead sets her up as his mistress in Paris, declaring his love for her at every turn while somehow failing to understand her struggles as the only Korean most Parisians have ever encountered. It’s a lonely and isolating position to be in, and, though Jin enjoys Paris, befriending Guy de Maupassant and editing Korean stories translated into French by student Hong Jong-u, she eventually returns to Korea for a visit following her second miscarriage.
From there, things happen rapidly: Jin learns that, because de Plancy never formally married her, she became a court lady again the minute she set foot in Korea, and is therefore still considered the property of the King; de Plancy is expelled from Korea after interference by Hong, who is now a court official, and is reassigned to Morocco; and Jin and de Plancy realize independently that they want to end their relationship. Before they can discuss this in person, however, the Queen is assassinated by a Japanese mob organized by Miura Gorō, Japan’s resident minister in Korea, and Jin falls into a depressive spiral that ends with her suicide. Yeon dies shortly afterwards, freezing to death by her grave. De Plancy, who had earlier written to Jin announcing that he no longer wished to be with her, moves on with his life and marries a respectable white woman, and enjoys a respectable career. At the very end, when Jin is no more than a faint regret in the back of his mind, he burns his last photo of her.
In attempting to distill the book into a handful of paragraphs, I have realized that the story is, if not exactly action-packed, a lot more eventful than it seemed at the time that I was reading it. The writing style is somewhat dull. The characters are just kind of there. I didn’t feel much for them, aside from Yeon, who deserved a far kinder fate. It was harder to get a lock on Jin, whose character still eludes me even after 364 pages of her. I had thought she was a historical figure, but I could find nothing online to suggest that she actually existed. This is starting to push her into Mary Sue territory, because every red-blooded male she meets seems to regard her as a specimen of absolute physical perfection. De Plancy, of course, is obsessed with her from the moment he lays eyes on her (even if he won’t fully admit to himself that he doesn’t actually think she’s marriage material), while Hong’s infatuation with her reaches such dizzying heights that he sexually assaults her in a carriage despite treating her like garbage during most of their relationship. When she returns to Korea, he makes it his mission to completely sabotage her life and manages to drive away both de Plancy and Yeon, which is apparently supposed to get her to accept him as a suitor because #MaleLogic. Yet even though my sympathies lay with her, I never really knew her. There were aspects of her character that I liked, but I didn’t connect with her, and the rest of the cast generally felt more like light sketches than fully realized characters. I didn’t actively dislike anyone, other than Hong, who was so patently unlikable that it was impossible to do anything other than despise him; but I also didn’t get invested in anyone, not even Yeon.
It was also hard to get invested in the story, which drags in some places while speeding through others. Important real-life events are treated like footnotes to the Very Important love story and are barely mentioned, such as Hong’s assassination of Kim Okgyun, which takes place around the same time as the Dreyfus Affair. Because of the way these two events are presented, I thought they were connected, but they are unrelated, and, because the Dreyfus Affair is never mentioned again, I’m not sure what context it was supposed to add. In general I found the pacing disorienting because the story has a habit of skipping ahead several weeks or months and dropping in on Jin in media res, then explaining itself as it goes along. While I don’t object to the practice in theory, in this particular case it was done too often, and it quickly became irritating.
Equally irritating was the dialogue, which mostly used em dashes in place of quotation marks. Quotation marks were used every now and then, but this was mostly when the dialogue was so entangled with the narration that the em dashes would not have been practical, and I’m not sure why Shin chose to punctuate her dialogue this way. Google tells me that the North and South Korean writing systems use different quotation styles, but neither of them uses em dashes, and neither does French, which uses guillemets. Perhaps the intention was to make the dialogue feel more like a part of the narrative flow, in which case it somewhat succeeded, because the em dashes did make the dialogue stand out less than quotation marks would have. All the same, it was a major irritant, especially as Shin also has an annoying habit of inserting ellipses to indicate a pause in any given conversation. This seems to be part of her style, and was a major factor in my decision to DNF The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness.
Jin looked at Suh with a quizzical expression, as if to ask, Who is Sobaek? Suh replied, “You know, Kang Yeon,” then laughed.
—I wonder if you’re older than him?
—Don’t you want to be a nuna to him?
Spare me. I usually don’t feel this strongly about quotation styles, but the one used here was so distracting that it kept me from sinking into the story the way I wanted to, which is a real pity because there actually are serious conversations about colonialism, white privilege, and identity and belonging. These are by no means the point of the book, but they are discussed in a way that is both thoughtful and empathetic. I particularly liked that Jin, who could easily have sunk into her socially accepted role as an exotic trophy mistress, never became comfortable with the increasingly obvious fact that de Plancy mostly viewed her as a walking souvenir. I liked that she began to question him on the morality of French trophy-hunting, especially regarding France’s well-documented habit of showcasing stolen treasures in the Louvre. I even kinda liked that de Plancy weaseled his way out of a concrete commitment. I like to think that if Jin had lived, she would have stayed in Korea and found a more equal relationship with a man who didn’t exoticise her. (Not Hong, obviously, because fuck that guy.) I wish she could have found contentment teaching the children at the woman Suh’s orphanage. Maybe in some alternate universe she does.
Overall I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t love it either. I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about it, aside from a mild, pervasive disappointment. My strongest feeling is that the synopsis is a little misleading, because it claims that the book is based on “a remarkable true story,” and, again, I haven’t found any evidence that Jin ever existed. That being said, I have found a couple of articles that say the book was inspired by Hippolyte Frandin, de Plancy’s successor, who wrote an account of a Korean dancer who was given to de Plancy as a gift; however, these articles were somewhat buried, and I haven’t read Frandin’s account for myself. Maybe I’ll see if I can hunt it down at some point, though with my luck – and given its apparent obscurity – it’s one of those things that are only available in French. This would certainly be a problem, because my French is way rusty.
With or without any context that Frandin might offer, the book still stands quite well on its own. I wouldn’t say you’d need any particular knowledge of the Joseon dynasty to follow the politics, which is good, because I have none. All the same, and despite the elements I enjoyed, the book annoyed me more than is generally considered healthy, and I will almost certainly not be rereading it.