Some thoughts on my gateway to the genre of historical fiction, and one of the most influential shoujo works ever made (*spoiler alert for everything that happened in both the manga and anime).
After two decades since I was first acquainted with it, I recently-revisited Rose of Versailles through the manga version. It’s still a spellbinding work, a fun (and ultimately heartbreaking) portrayal of historical figures as they grow up, faff around, make funny faces, and rage against the night for having a different sex/position/class/marital status from their loved ones.
It’s worth noting how female-centric RoV is. The story is dominated (in a good way) by females in both protagonist and antagonist roles, while a high number of male characters are primarily defined through their devotion and subservience to certain female characters. It’s not something you’d see very often, even from a shoujo series written by a female author. There’s a good share of thriving and well-fleshed female characters, and nowhere it is more apparent than in the two main cogs of its narrative: the first one’s a fictional character much loved by her fellow characters and the readers of both sexes, and the other is one of the most well-known figures in European history.
While Oscar Francois de Jarjayes might possessed all the desirable traits from a female AND a male, it’s the well-roundness, flaws, and limitations of her character and circumstances that truly made her special. Riyoko Ikeda might’ve fabricated an unlikely scenario of a female royal guard commander in France circa 18th century, but she certainly didn’t make it easy for Oscar along the way; as the plot thickens, Oscar had to earn the respect of her disapproving subordinates, deal with complicated romance, mature beyond the boundaries of her privileges, and make supremely tough decisions as the whole country reached its boiling point.
Just as important as Oscar is Queen Antoinette, who is at least the co-lead in RoV despite Oscar’s more heroic role and relative popularity. It was her guileless and heart-breakingly young mug that was featured in the first original volume of the manga, after all. While it’s not exactly a novel idea to portray her in a sympathetic light (historians seem to agree that she’s a misguided but ultimately well-meaning figure), as I alluded above in regards of historical fiction’s appeal, Ikeda’s attempt at humanizing and contextualizing Marie worked wonders. It really felt like a compelling roller-coaster to see her from the days of skipping private tutors and being spanked by Queen Theresa of Austria, to the political but not entirely unaffectionate marriage with Louis XVI (himself a tragic figure who had the rotten luck of being born as throne successor instead of a simple locksmith), through court intrigues and bad influence, and eventually, The Guillotine.
Rosalie Lamoliere was originally supposed to be the third female cog, but she… doesn’t work out, simple as that. Fans disliked her so much that Ikeda had to reduce her role, and while I normally frown when such things happened, I gotta say I can’t disagree with the outcome on this one. Rosalie wasn’t so bad at first when her less privileged perspective is seemingly meant to complement Oscar and Antoinette’s sides of the story, but then..
1) her sister ran away to fulfill her destiny as the perpetrator in the Diamond Affair Necklace (True Story™);
2) her mother got ran over by a noble carriage;
3) her mother informed her about her Secret Noble Ancestry in her dying words;
4) she developed a crush on Oscar after being picked up, which wouldn’t be a problem in itself if it’s not so damn repetitive and over the top;
5) OMG her real mother is the same lady who hit-and-run her adoptive mother, and double OMG it was Madame de Polignac, Antoinette’s scheming confidante!
Yeah, it was so much bad melodrama nonsense that after, 6) Polignac’s daughter got so distressed over all these that she committed a suicide, I wanted to scream, “GODDAMMIT, IKEDA, STOP BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!!”
Thankfully, Ikeda did stop and shipped Rosalie away. She eventually returns occasionally as a more or less inconsequential character who has settled into a hetero-normative relationship, which is kind of not ideal, but still preferable over everything above.
I really like it when authors gradually age the characters in a way that readers wouldn’t notice right away. Ikeda does it well, and I couldn’t help but feel bittersweet pangs when comparing the fresh-faced images of Oscar, Marie, and Andre from the first volume to what they have become. As the characters evolve, so does the tone; there’s a lot of lighthearted moments and comedic faces interspersed between plot developments as if Ikeda’s a shoujo version of Osamu Tezuka, but they naturally fade as it heads closer toward its inevitably tragic resolution. Ikeda also displayed some versatility by inserting grotesque imagery in juxtaposition with the cute sparkly eyes and gag manga-worthy reaction shots, as evidenced by Louis XV’s dying scene and the rotting cadaver of Bernard Chatelet’s sister.
RoV has some narrative flaws, for sure. Rosalie’s Tragic Life is by far the most obvious, but there are also the case of some characters being ineffectively used (Count Mercy just sort of disappear at some point, while it feels like Ikeda doesn’t quite know what to do with Polignac, especially after the whole Rosalie shenanigan), a mostly one-dimensional feeling to the romance aspect, and some wholly unnecessary melodramatic flourishes. Andre going blind is really milked for all it’s worth, and while I understand that Ikeda might have want to soften the blow of her eventual end, having Oscar contracting a fatal disease is literally an overkill.
Nevertheless, I think it ends in a strong, albeit very depressing, note. Oscar and Andre get to perish in a blaze of glory, but the last volume also has the once prideful Marie toiling away, made even worse by a supremely botched escape attempt and the re-appearance of the utterly broken General Jarjayes. Heck, Ikeda doesn’t even spare Andre’s grandma!
As Louise and eventually Marie take their last few steps in life, I immediately recall the ‘The King is Dead, Long Live The King’ scene as far back as volume 02, specifically their reaction shots when told about Louis XV’s demise.
They’re kids. The first thing they do after receiving this news is to cry and embrace each other. They’re scared. They’re extremely ill equipped to handle things in their new positions.. But, even as they became a weak ineffectual king and a lavish naive queen, they also go out with their chin held up.
Rose of Versailles is a glorious tragedy, and it’s also a work where you can feel the creator’s immense sympathy toward her characters, both the real and the imagined.