Manga Review: The Rose of Versailles
In the late 60’s to early 70’s, the world of manga in Japan began to change. Manga, the Japanese form of comics, had mostly followed the trend of simplistic, cartoony characters popularized by artists like Osamu Tezuka that would later become the anime style we know today. But that evolution started with the explosion of “shoujo”. An opposite to the action packed, boy oriented genre known as “shojun”, shoujo manga were stories mostly revolving around romantic, comedic, and dramatic topics and was heavily directed towards young girls.
While the genre is still going strong today, the shoujo of the 60’s and 70’s is most fondly remembered by it’s extravagant, sparkly, and frilly art style that once dominated the shelves of Japanese bookstores. Perhaps it was due to so many artists embracing such “girlyness” that polarized it from a wider audience, but there was no denying that the new popularity of such books opened the floodgates of female artists in the previously male-dominated industry.
However, that industry was confined mostly to Asian countries, as for whatever reason, most publishers and translators simply weren’t open to distributing shoujo to western countries, perhaps due to the dramatic art style. What this meant was that any shoujo that made it out of Japan was bound to make an impact- and no other series made a larger impact than The Rose of Versailles.
Originally serialized in Margaret magazine between 1972 and 1973, Riyoko Ikeda’s historical-fiction romance is still considered the most influential shoujo manga of its time, breaking barriers with its widespread audience and lavish illustrations. Loosely based around the life of France’s last queen, Marie Antoinette, The Rose of Versailles tells the story of two main characters: Marie Antionette, and a completely fictional character, Oscar Francois de Jarjayes.
While the events of the entire series would be too long to explain here, the basic plot is of Marie, despite being married to the king, longs for a man named Axel Fersen. Her forbidden love, paired with the royal family’s extravagant spending of tax money, slowly builds up into the French revolution that leads to her death.
Meanwhile, Oscar, a woman raised as a man since birth, slowly begins to realize her love for her childhood friend Andre, while Rosalie, a former peasant rescued by Oscar and adopted into the French court, battles her feelings for her as well. Side characters such as the Black Knight and villains like Duchess de Polignac all play parts leading up to the catalyst of the series, but their parts are minimal compared to the grand epic of Marie and Oscar.
While reading the series start to finish, looking back at former novels, it is almost silly how minimal the problems of earlier issues are compared to how serious things get towards the end. However, it is suiting how something as goofy as court drama is portrayed as seriously as being killed at the guillotine, perhaps reflecting, or even critiquing the royals in the same way the book does with their frivolous misuse of money.
While at the end of the series, there is no single villain, rather a collection of people overthrowing the French government, the series does have two formidable villains. The first is Madame du Barry, first appearing while Marie was still dauphine, a selfish woman with the ulterior motive to become the richest and most feared person at court. The series immediately presents her as evil, excusing her wickedness with her profession- a former prostitute turned the king’s mistress.
I am sure prostitutes were viewed much worse than they are today both in the 1970’s and 1770’s, but I feel as if Madame du Barry’s “evil” backstory is a bit overkill. Characters are disgusted to the point of nausea when hearing of this, and at points everyone at Versailles is determined to put this woman through living hell, humiliating and shunning her until the king himself has to step in. Sure, she was using her status for money (and was going around poisoning people), and she was never seen again after the king died, but I simply cannot bring myself to hate her. She obviously came from less-than-awesome background and was merely putting her fortune to good use. I can’t possibly blame a #girlboss for girlbossing.
Another similar character, and the last main villain of Versailles, is Jeanne de
Valois, the sister of Rosalie, another reoccurring character. Same as du Barry, despite literally killing people, I can’t hate her. Both Jeanne and Rosalie lived in poverty, just barely scraping along. It is made clear from the start that Rosalie is their mom’s favorite child, perhaps due to the fact she is long-lost royalty. In many scenes, Jeanne’s mom yells and belittles her for trying to help the family through stealing. Eventually, when one of Jeanne’s lies goes to far, convincing a noblewoman she is of royal blood, she abandons her family to live at an estate.
Over time, what is originally a penchant for pick-pocketing becomes something far worse, as Jeanne adds and adds to her lie, hoping to gain as much wealth as she can. However, when she is caught, she is shown no sympathy, no remorse for the broken household she came from and a desire of more gone too far, and is branded three times, before plunging to her death over a fiery balcony a few issues later. I was very sad to see her go and would have rather preferred she escaped alive and was then never seen again. Both villains were villainous due to things I personally sympathize with them with, and it made me mad to see all the other characters not even have a slight bit of remorse. (except for Oscar, who never hated du Barry for being the king’s mistress and even tried to rescue Jeanne from falling into the flames.)
Gender and Queerness
Probably the most well known and beloved character in The Rose of Versailles is Lord Oscar. Many pieces of Versailles-related media are known as Lady Oscar, including the official stage adaptation, movie, and international anime releases. Unlike other characters somewhat based in history, Oscar is the only 100% original character in the story. Despite being biologically female, Oscar was raised and is regarded by most characters as male. Her father, hoping for a male child to be his heir, decided to raise Oscar to be one, dressing her in boy’s clothes, teaching her boy’s activities, and giving her the title of “lord”.
Oscar, although she corrects a few characters that she is a woman, uses she/her and he/him pronouns interchangeably, and is without much issue when someone believes she is a man, sometimes preferring to be viewed as so. She enjoys her life as a boy, preferring to wear men’s clothes and hold a men’s title. Very little of the story revolves around Oscar’s androgenicity, although some characters are held back from romantic interest due to her biological gender.
One of these characters is Rosalie, a former peasant girl who is taken in by Oscar, soon discovering she herself is a royal. Oscar takes care of Rosalie after her mother’s death, and soon Rosalie finds herself in love with Oscar. It is hinted Oscar feels the same, but neither character ever confesses their love, instead eventually moving on to more “traditional” opposite sex characters. While I found this massively disappointing, the short-lived WLW romance between Oscar and Rosalie, as well as Oscars openly gender-fluid identity is something people still talk about even today, undoubtedly one of the most influential and trail-blazing fictional relationships in manga.
Revolution and Royalty
One thing I appreciate the most about The Rose of Versailles is the portrayal of both the royals and the people of the French revolution. Neither is shown as “evil” or as black and white as other media about the French revolution, instead presenting arguments from both sides, allowing the readers to make their own decision.
From the beginning, Marie Antoinette is shown as an immature girl, preferring to play instead of study. Her title as the future queen of France was not known to her until she was much older, and she was never properly prepared to assume that duty. Unlike her mother, Maria Theresa, who acts as the voice of reason throughout the story, Marie did not understand what it took to be a queen before she became one, and never really lost that foolishness even as the story progresses.
In one scene, while an imprisoned Marie is separated from her youngest son, she begs the men taking him away if they have ever had kids, and how they cared for them. To that, one of the men responds that he did in fact had kids, and he watched them starve to death while she lived lavishly in the Versailles palace. I think that perfectly encapsulates the message of Rose of Versailles. While you have grown to love these characters, and it is supremely sad to see them die one by one, even if you were the fairest person in the world, you would understand that this is what had to happen. You understand the plight of the commonfolk- and even though I wouldn’t exactly say execution would be my go-to in this situation- even I know that they had a point doing it.
Reading The Rose of Versailles is like watching Titanic- no matter how much you grow to love the characters; you know what will inevitably happen. Marie Antoinette- even though she gets more trouble than any of the other royals- did spend tax money on jewels and balls while the people she swore to protect died in the streets. We know from the very first page Marie is not the most fair or reasonable person, and though we want to see her live and thrive, she never truly grows out of being a child. It’s heartbreaking to read the last time she sees her beloved Fersen, but we all known what will happen next. It’s not to say Marie was deserving of death, but there is a sense of helplessness to see the once moderately troubling character traits snowball into the final push that started the revolution.
I don’t think there is much I would change about The Rose of Versailles. I haven’t been able to truly capture what makes this manga so good on paper, but there is truly a magical aura about this series that I don’t think any other book has done better. I wouldn’t want to ruin that, but I think I would change the outcome of some of the villains. I want them to have more sympathy, and I really wanted Jeanne to escape in some way. And after all that romantic tension, I still would really love to see Oscar and Rosalie together- if not in a relationship, I would settle for a kiss.
To conclude, I understand why The Rose of Versailles is still as popular today as it was in 1972, if not even more so. The characters and writing were ahead of their time, with characters so memorable that you can’t help but think about them weeks after finishing their story. It is both lighthearted and somber, with an incredibly detailed art style that sucks you in the same way it did for readers fifty years ago. I would recommend anyone interested in getting into Japanese literature/manga to start with The Rose of Versailles. Even though it may have started as a girl’s comic, I think there is a profound magic hidden in the lacy, sparkly pages of princesses and knights that I hope will engross you the same way it did for me.