A Genre Redefining Series: The Rose of Versailles

The cover of the first volume of The Rose of Versailles.

The cover of the first volume of The Rose of Versailles.

One of the most famous theater companies in Japan is the Takarazuka Revue. It’s an all-women’s company and they have a massive following. Though I’m not a fan of theirs yet, that might change if I ever see a live performance of their popular production, The Rose of Versailles. And if I do become a fan, I’ll make sure I follow them devoutly.

There have been many events over the course of human history that have shaped and redefined our lives. While the most visible are advances in technology, medicine, sanitation, agriculture, sciences and the like, there are those major historical events that shape how nations interact with each other or how humanity sees itself. For example, in my lifetime I witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of China as a major world power, and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Virginia. These events have greatly defined the policies of the United States of America, and I am still seeing the impact they are having on the world, particularly in regards to the terrorist attack. While I most likely will be dead when people begin to thoroughly study this time period and its impact on the world, I’m sure it will alter how humans view foreign and economic policy.

Why do I feel it will take such an exorbitant amount of time for people to truly feel the impact of current events? Honestly, because we haven’t seen how events from the past century, let alone some from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, have altered the course of human history. For example, when we look at something like the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), despite having occurred over one hundred years ago, there is still a legacy of racism, bigotry, and socio-economic disparity looming over black communities in America. We also have yet to see how many post-colonial African countries will fair in the twenty-first century, the impact of a growing Chinese economy, the economic growth in Latin American countries, such as Brazil, or the rise in nationalism in countries such as Russia and Japan. All of these will certainly effect how we progress as a species and global community, and it’ll be interesting to see what becomes of them.

However, there is one event that has certainly altered the course of how, at least, Western societies view their political systems and inalienable rights. I am of course speaking of the French Revolution (1789-1799). In the strictest definition of a revolution, a single circular or elliptical orbit, the French revolution was a massive success. It began with the monarch, King Louis XVI, having control over national policies, followed by his abdication and subsequent execution, then ending with the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor of France. So, while the ideals the reformists were fighting for may not have come to fruition at that time, those same ideas, traditions, and political systems the Revolution sought to change have impacted governmental systems and the rights we enjoy to this very day.

Consider, excepting for possibly the American Revolution that began in 1776, prior to the French Revolution populations in Europe hadn’t considered rising up against the monarchs to end the centuries-old traditions of feudalism and establish a republican state, create equal rights for all, and denounce organized religion. These were radical, new ideas in the late 1700s, and honestly I have to agree with former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai about the lasting impact of the French Revolution, though the quote is often misconstrued to be about the events that were occurring in France during 1968, “It’s too soon to say.”

The main characters of The Rose of Versailles as the appear during different parts of the series.  Center: Oscar François de Jarjayes.  Top left: Marie Antoinette and Oscar.  Top right: André Grandier and Rosary Lamourliére.  Bottom Left: André and Oscar.  Bottom right: Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen the Younger.

The main characters of The Rose of Versailles as the appear during different parts of the series. Center: Oscar François de Jarjayes. Top left: Marie Antoinette and Oscar. Top right: André Grandier and Rosary Lamourliére. Bottom Left: André and Oscar. Bottom right: Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen the Younger.

Those who have managed to read this far may be wondering what any of this has to do with anime or manga. Again, the answer is rather simple. One of the most popular shojo, or young girls, manga series, and a series that arguably redefined the entire genre, The Rose of Versailles (ベルサイユのばら Berusaiyu no Bara) used the events leading up to and including the French Revolution as a backdrop to the story. This unquestionably made the series a tragedy in the classical sense, and because of this, made the demise of each character that much more interesting to read. However, because the series is in the shojo genre of manga, it naturally has romance interwoven into much of the narrative. Yet, unlike many classical and modern romance manga series, it has an air of courtly love as opposed to the more familiar tropes we often see. While the tragic nature of the series and its take on romance are rather unique to the series, it was the narrative created by the author, Riyoko Ikeda, involving the historical events and figures that made the series that much more enthralling.

Returning to the historical French Revolution for just a moment, this event in human history has been written about at great lengths by academics and there have been a number of historical fiction pieces written about it since as early as 1845. This makes the Revolution perfect for fiction writers to create many different narratives depending on which historical figures they wish to follow. Thus, an author could write a tragic story about the demise of the royal family or focus on the triumphs of the National Assembly. If an author wanted to be a bit more creative, he or she could create a classical tragicomedy, where a downtrodden hero rises to prominence, then succumbs to a vice and ultimately falls, only in this case, it would be about the rise and fall of the National Assembly. While the manga and anime industries have produced many works of historical fiction over the years, the vast majority of them focus on Japanese history rather than world history. Thus, when examining a series like The Rose of Versailles, it’s amazing to think how it has retained its popularity for over forty years.

There are certainly a slew of reasons why The Rose of Versailles has retained it’s popularity, but I would argue one of the most prominent reasons lies in how the overall narrative of the series is a classical tragedy. For those who are not familiar with literary theory, classical tragedy involves the concept of a character of great prominence experiencing a reversal of fortune, generally resulting in his or her demise. There is an added layer to this, though. With many tragic stories we, the audience, are privy to the knowledge of the character’s downfall. Thus, there is a certain sense of dread and fear that looms over us as we progress through the narrative. One of the most often-cited works of classical tragedy is Oedipus the King, but one could argue plays such as Julius Caesar or even the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible are also classical tragedies. As a result, with the backdrop of the French Revolution, when we look at the major characters of The Rose of Versailles—because European nobles had extremely long names and titles, I will be using the characters more common names, such as Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen the Younger—we instantly know the characters are ill fated.

Yet, it is in the nature of a tragedy the characters must experience opulence even as they eventually succumb to their destiny. This is seen all throughout the series, but more so in the earlier volumes as they take place before the events of the Revolution, rather than the later volumes. As an aside, I read the nine-volume reprint edition of The Rose of Versailles, not the original ten-volume edition. So, for those who are familiar with the original edition, I will do my best to accommodate the difference. For example, in the first volume we see the lavish lifestyle of Marie Antoinette and the other nobles at Versailles, and exactly how little they care for those not in their elite circle. The visuals quickly show us their opulence, but their attitudes are presented by way of a courtly feud between Marie Antoinette and King Louis XV’s lover, Madame du Barry. Where we see Marie Antoinette is not indulging in the excesses of French royalty at first, Madame du Barry, a woman from the lower echelons of society, is the exact opposite—living a life filled with rich abundance, fashionable dresses, and fine jewelry.

Nonetheless, we have an opportunity to understand what prompted Marie Antoinette to begin to despise Madame du Barry and it’s fascinating to see how the rigid social order of courtly life—where one can only address Marie Antoinette after she has addressed oneself—affected the relationship between the two characters. Thus, while Madame du Barry had far more power and influence at Versailles, she couldn’t speak to Marie Antoinette because of her status. In turn, Marie Antoinette speaking to Madame du Barry would acknowledge her and allow a woman of ill repute to enter the palace. While this is narratively interesting and exemplifies the wealth and frivolous nature of the elite, it is also juxtaposed with the horrid living conditions of the very poor through the depictions of Rosary Lamourliére, her mother, Nichole Lamourliére, and her sister, Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, in the early chapters of the series. This truly set the tone for The Rose of Versailles as a tragedy, but it also gives readers an idea of the larger scope of the different socio-economic groups in France at the time.

Marie Antoinette lamenting her News Years greeting to Madame du Barry.

Marie Antoinette lamenting her New Years greeting to Madame du Barry.

However, I feel the peak of the tragedy occurs in the third and fourth volume of the series. What I mean is, this was the point in The Rose of Versailles where the characters could no longer enjoy extravagance and had to face the reality of the growing discontent of the masses. The arc in these two volumes centered on the very famous Affair of the Diamond Necklace—a historical event where a claim had been made that Marie Antoinette had purchased an extremely lavish diamond necklace. This is one of the better arcs in the series as a whole because from the moment the charge is levied against Marie Antoinette, Jeanne, and the Cardinal de Rohan, as readers we know the guillotine is already beginning to hang over Marie Antoinette’s neck. While I won’t attribute the actual event to Marie Antoinette’s loss of pubic popularity—I’m sure historically it came far earlier than that—in the manga series we can see how this one event forced her to accept the idea that perhaps she can no longer ignore, at the very least, the nobility at Versailles or spend an obscene amount of money on extravagant clothes, jewelry, chateaus, and other such splendors. Thus, what was a series about great indulgences up to that point quickly became one concerning the demise of the ruling class.

Yet, this is also the pivotal moment in the series for the fictional character Oscar François de Jarjayes. Prior to the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, we have an understating Oscar has sympathies for the downtrodden of Paris, but this is the first time she—yes, Oscar is a woman—has the opportunity to hear the voices of the less fortunate. Similar to Marie Antoinette, this marked the demise of Oscar, but in a very different manner. Where Marie Antoinette’s downfall resulted from her poor public image and extravagant life, Oscar’s tragic fate stems from her outlook on the lower classes, which subsequently led to her being ostracized by her family, the royal guard, and the social elites, but which also bolstered her image in the eyes of those under her command. Thus, Oscar’s tragedy was less about discovering the truth about her world, and more about navigating between the worlds of the elite and the poor as well as having to play the dual roles of a nobleman and a noblewoman.

With the backdrop of the French Revolution, though, this made the characters’ different stories that much more interesting to read. As anyone who has studied history in the slightest knows, the French Revolution was a tumultuous time in French and even European history. What is often known as the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) saw many French nobles, as well as those accused of treason by the National Assembly, being sent to the guillotine. Because we already have this information before reading The Rose of Versailles, it makes each step towards the conclusion that much more gripping. For example, the final volume of the series brings us the Royal Flight to Varennes. While we know the ultimate fate of the French royal family, because we have spent a considerable amount of time with them, thus becoming attached to the characters, we hope for their success. It’s an odd thing to write, but the author, Riyoko Ikeda, made each character in the royal family sympathetic to the point where I had to question whether or not Marie Antoinette, and by extension her family, were truly the hideous people we so commonly think they are. Yet, at the same time it would not be the French Revolution if the guillotine does not behead King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Therefore, with the backdrop of the French Revolution and the personal demise of the different characters, The Rose of Versailles is truly a manga series that embodies the classical tragedy.

Yet, it’s not just the backdrop of the French Revolution or the personal downfalls that bring about the tragic nature of the series. It can also been found in the romances seen throughout. One might expect because the series is a shojo publication it would entail excessive displays of affection. Instead, the romance in The Rose of Versailles reflects ideas about courtly love. Again, for those not familiar with the concept, courtly love is the idea that exemplifies love at first sight and forswearing all for that love. However, the love is born of purity and is never tarnished with copulation or marriage. Thus, many of the romances seen in The Rose of Versailles are characters professing their love for each other and making claims about how they will dedicate their lives to that pure love. This is most prevalent in the love expressed between Fersen and Marie Antoinette, as their love can only be one involving emotional gratification and not sexual. True, there are instances in the series where the two can be seen sharing a late night rendezvous, but they never consummate their love for each other. Granted, there are far more instances of Fersen professing he will sacrifice all to protect Marie Antoinette but we can find a handful of instance where she does the same later in the series. As a result, their love resembles the traditions of courtly love rather than of modern romance.

Then again, one can also glean ideas about Japanese courtly love from the series as well. Much like its European counterpart, Japanese courtly love focuses on the emotional aspects of the relationship rather than the physical, although one can find instances in classical Japanese literature of a more carnal relationship. This emphasis on the emotional aspects of a relationship is interwoven into the poetic verses popular during the Heian period of Japan (794-1185), such as can be found in the Man’yoshu. In The Rose of Versailles, we see something similar in the letters exchanged between Fersen and Marie Antoinette. While the Japanese version is not as prevalent as the European ideals of courtly love in The Rose of Versailles, seeing a mixture of Eastern and Western ideas in the series was rather interesting.

The only time Oscar François de Jarjayes wears a dress in The Rose of Versailles.

The only time Oscar François de Jarjayes wears a dress in The Rose of Versailles.

The exploration of romance doesn’t end with the concepts of courtly love, though, and two of the major themes of romance in the series concerns when it is best to relinquish one’s romantic feelings and how love can develop from spending an extended time together. These are not ideas we see in literature too often, particularly the question of when we should abandon our romantic feelings, and this made the dynamic between the different characters far more interesting. Honestly, these occur in the later volumes, but it added a nice layer to the tragic narrative the series was presenting, especially between Oscar and André Grandier and between Oscar and Fersen. Thinking about how it can be difficult in our own lives to work with those who have rejected us, it’s rather amazing to see Oscar navigate her feelings for Marie Antoinette’s lover, Fersen, and to watch André, Oscar’s personal guard and confidant, cope with his adoration of Oscar. In fact, the best example of both came in the fourth volume of the series. While it’s not the first time we see both Oscar display some romantic inclination towards Fersen and André towards Oscar, the ball Oscar attended in the volume illustrated quite well the idea of knowing when one should desert one’s feelings for someone else. Yet, at the same time the relationship between Oscar and André also demonstrated the idea of a bond two people can create from spending an extended amount of time together.

The latter concept is far simpler to explain as it deals with how we become attached to those with whom we have had extended contact. For example, one might think people in arranged marriages never develop feelings for each other, but in fact, there are instances where over a life together a couple in an arranged marriage will do so. With Oscar and André, because they have spent a lifetime together, it’s almost no wonder why they would develop romantic feelings for each other. However, I find Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI demonstrated this far better. It actually came in the final volume of the series just before Louis XVI was executed on the 114th page of the reprint edition. Despite being a very short interlude, the series showed readers that despite initially being a political marriage, Marie Antoinette did care for her husband in the end. Thus, by including many different themes of romance in The Rose of Versailles, Riyoko Ikeda enhanced the inherent tragedy of the series.

However, many of the themes and ideas of The Rose of Versailles were interesting from an analytical standpoint as well. Without an absorbing narrative surrounding the historical events, the series would have been no more interesting than a history textbook. It should be noted, the entirety of the series includes most of the events that led up to the French Revolution. I mentioned the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Madame du Barry, and the Royal Flight to Varennes, but other major events are mentioned at different points in the series as well. Yes, there is some embellishment of and speculation about those events, but as a work of fiction this should be expected. Take, for example, the rivalry between Marie Antoinette and Madam du Barry. There was apparently some rivalry between the two women, and while I’m not positive of all the details, it appeared as though Marie Antoinette did in fact refuse to address Madame du Barry. Thus, in the series we are given a short history between the two, no more than a handful of sentences, but then we are presented with a gripping narrative as told by Riyoko Ikeda. This is the true beauty of historical fiction as it can make even the dullest historical details that much more engaging, while still educating readers and creating an interest in the subject.

The Rose of Versailles is possibly the best example of great literature within the manga industry. Taking a world-changing event and making it accessible to so many readers was an amazing feat that has been very rarely replicated in the industry. I can see why in 1972, when the series was in syndication in Shueisha’s Margret Comics, it generated such a wide audience. The use of the classical tragedy genre enables readers to become attached to historical figures who are often reviled as being villainous, and, while there is a certain element of sadism in seeing their demise, one can’t also help but feel a certain amount dread about the characters as well. However, I feel it was how the romances were approached that was far more interesting. Where many other romantic series focus on falling in love and starting a relationship, here we have the chance to see rejection, themes of courtly romance, and even ill-fated love. These were radical ideas at the time of publication for The Rose of Versailles, especially in the shojo genre, and this helped redefine how manga authors could approach romance. Yet, where the series shined was in adapting the historical events and figures into a narrative that was comprehensible and spellbinding for any reader. Had the series lacked this, no look at the themes of romance or classical tragedy would have made the series appealing for readers. Thus, while there are some inaccuracies concerning the history the story presents, those same inaccuracies heightened both the romance and tragedy of The Rose of Versailles. No one should forgo reading this series and it’s a nice introduction to the medium for those who may not be familiar with the fandom. In fact, I’m rather ashamed it took me so long to read it.

Work Info
 English (日本語, Romaji)
By: Riyoko Ikeda
Under: Shueisha, Margaret Comics
Official Site: http://www.shueisha.co.jp/versailles/
More Info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rose_of_Versailles


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