Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Rose of Versailles

Yesterday I finished watching The Rose of Versailles, an anime that ran from 1979 to 1980. It's a 40-episode tale of French nobility, specifically the fall of the Bourbon dynasty. It begins with the arrival of Marie Antoinette in France and ends with the fall of the Bastille, the peasants' riot that toppled a fortress and signaled the rise of the people as a dominant force in France.

The show isn't about the French Revolution, though. Rather, the reign of Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution form the real-life backdrop for a fictional story of a woman who was raised as man, determined to become a soldier and to not have her value as a person defined by her gender.

Oscar Fran├žois de Jarjayes is the fictional daughter of General Fran├žois Augustin Regnier de Jarjayes, a devout royalist who in real life fought against the revolution, was placed in charge of Louis XVI's relics, and tried to help Marie Antoinette escape after the death of the king. He ended up surviving the revolution, attaining the rank of lieutenant general after the restoration of the monarchy.

The show includes many historical figures, though a decent amount of creative liberty was taken with many of them.

Regardless, the story of Oscar Jarjayes is pretty fascinating. She's not ashamed of her womanhood, it's just not terribly relevant to her. What's more, it's not terribly relevant to anyone else in the French court, either. Most of the court seems enamored with Oscar, and she's generally taken quite seriously as the commander of the royal guards.

Much of the early parts of the show establishes the friendship between Oscar and Marie Antoinette. The queen is portrayed as somewhat childish and naive, but generally kind-hearted; not quite the callous despot she's remembered as.

I appreciate this more nuanced depiction of an otherwise hated historical figure. I have no doubt Marie Antoinette had her problems, but it's pretty clear that the revolutionaries did their best to assassinate her character. She's immortalized as saying of the hungry people begging for bread, "let them eat cake," though in fact the line came from an English novel that predates the French Revolution. The simple fact is, Marie Antoinette was Austrian, and if there's one thing the French in the 1700s hated more than nobility, it was Austrians. So, while the nobility may have been doomed either way, Marie Antoinette's historic reputation is likely attributable to good old-fashioned prejudice.

I appreciated somewhat less the depiction of the Duke d'Orleans, a villainous character based on Louis Phillipe II, the Duke of Orleans. In the show he's depicted as a schemer, bent on engineering his ascension to the throne. The real Duke d'Orleans did in fact assist in the eventual overthrow of King Louis XVI, mostly because he was a liberal who sought to give rights to the people, despite his own nobility. He opened his palace to political dissenters, giving them a place to meet in spite of Louis XVI's censorship laws. When nobility was abolished, Louis Phillipe II willingly shed his titles and took up a new last name. He strove to be a voice of reason through the revolution, and attempted to help his cousin the king to avoid his fate, but was rebuffed. During the Reign of Terror the former Duke d'Orleans risked his life to protect people who came under suspicion of the guillotine-happy rulers. Eventually, he and all of the other Bourbons in France were rounded up and executed for the crime of being born Bourbons.

In short, I kinda liked the real Duke d'Orleans, and I don't think he deserved to be portrayed as a villain. Interestingly, however, even though the Duke never became king as some claim was his goal, his son did become king when the monarchy was restored after the Napoleonic wars.

That said, the show generally did a great job of giving a nuanced view of the revolution, neither excusing the excesses of the nobility nor shying away from the horrors wrought by revolutionaries.

The story focuses on people rather than events, and the people go through a lot over the course of the show. The petty squabbles between Marie Antoinette and other members of her court early in the show seem insignificant compared to the dramatic conflict of the revolution in the later episodes, but in the moment they were treated with similar intensity.

The Rose of Versailles includes action, intrigue, and romance all in fair portions. It's a fun story with a melancholy ending, and I recommend giving it a shot. It holds up pretty well.

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