From the start, Rose of Versailles has a menace hanging over it – that of the French Revolution, constantly alluded to by the narrator and gradually brought into the main plot by the exposure of its privileged protagonist to the injustice of the world she fights for. The shoujo aspects of it – Marie Antoinette as the privileged adolescent involved in social spats with her rivals at court playing out like schoolgirl bickering – fade away through a move towards genuine threat. It goes from two women arguing about talking to each other to attempted fraud, efforts to undermine the monarchy and even assassination plots before the story as a whole pulls away from Marie herself to the possible downfall of the French nobility as an institution. Oscar is a confidante in this story, the woman in which Marie can put her faith as a friend, and yet this is set against her growing revulsion at the injustice of the system itself.
It is the same historical-context cloth that makes a programme like the BBC’s recent dramatisation of Poldark so exciting, and which conversely makes a programme like Downton Abbey fall flat. Principle versus privilege – the decline of unfair power systems and the role of principled iconoclasts in this revolutionary process – is immensely cathartic and yet has the scope for truly fascinating dramatic tension. Marie Antoinette in Rose of Versailles is a good example. Her decline from “good queen,” the brightest hope of France and someone who apparently is loved by the people, to demonised figure of detached apathy is the thrust of the series, set parallel to Oscar’s finding her own place in society. Oscar is, it could be argued, a similar figure to Ross Poldark – an ostracised person who ostensibly has privilege but does not want it and is not truly respected by privileged peers for being a “soft touch.” Even at her most “loyal,” serving the monarchy unquestioningly, she aims to be a human face to power in helping the disinherited Rosalie – and in trying to help and genuinely be an agent of a responsible, “good”, monarchy she realises the failure of the status quo as she is met with death, cruelty and corruption. In these historical settings, to be humanitarian is to go against the elite’s status quo – and it drives excellent conflict. Oscar throws off her status, first joining the regular military to be closer to the people and then encouraging a mutiny to aid the revolutionaries – and the viewer wants to see her succeed. She comes close to giving up this principled position because she is finally “respected” by the elite – but in the end personal morals win out.
Compare this – be it Oscar’s move from loyal protector to mutineer and revolutionary or Poldark’s turning his ostracism by the monied into an attempt to undo economic inequality – with how Downton Abbey portrays the downfall of a monied elite. It is soapish, pulp entertainment no different in its tone, in many ways, to Rose of Versailles at its snidest. It plays precisely on one half of what I see as the appeal of these over-the-top historical dramas – the backbiting, the putdowns and the personal rivalries. Not an episode goes by without controversies, dramas and rivalries played out via ludicrous schemes evocative at their most trivial of Antoinette versus Du Barry and at their most grave of the Affair of the Necklace in Rose of Versailles (in which a conspiracy to defraud the queen led to a trial in which allegations of sexual impropriety were raised). Yet Downton firmly presents the decline of its elite as something wistful and sad; modernisation is happening in a haphazard, awkward way that is bothersome. Socialism is a thing that happens that might disgrace a family as a rich person decides they don’t want to be rich any more. Revolutions happen elsewhere (this attitude is, in fact, adeptly skewered in Farrell’s excellent novels Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur, discussion of the politics of which could sustain an entire essay alone.) Indeed, the decline of the status quo is a source of comedy when it is best as a source of drama.
To clarify this point, consider the slide in tone in Rose of Versailles from Marie Antoinette the hugely powerful teenage girl to Marie Antoinette the terrified queen trying to cling to power by approving any repressive laws needed to do so. This is a ruler at the forefront of the “decline in standards” that manifests in Downton Abbey as distant dramas or uppity servants. The trivial dramas, and the casual fraud of vast sums of money, happen in a hermetic society that is set clearly against a dispossessed, deprived majority. Oscar has to mediate both these nobles’ spats and the growing tragedy awaiting outside – her position as an outsider is what gives her the humanity to want to confront cruel nobles, while her privilege and skill at arms is what gives her the means to without being demonised. As the crises facing Versailles become more severe, the series loses its levity, its shoujo exaggeration, and becomes increasingly polemical. Lectures about socialism – both diegetic and non-diegetic – prevail. The melodrama is no longer about laughing behind fans and social standing, it is about the poor dying. One is watching two women change – one going from a vague sense of “goodness” to a genuine activism, and one going from a similar starting point of assumed goodness to desperate seclusion. Were Rose of Versailles to be a series about how hard done by the French nobility were by the revolution, about how inconvenient the poor were and without humanising figures like Oscar, Andre and Fersen, it would fail.
Rose of Versailles builds up, and then destroys, so many characters in remaining laser-focused on Oscar’s journey. Not least of these is Marie Antoinette herself, and her ineffectual husband. Yet not all of them are from the nobility. It does question some of the acts of revolution; Saint-Just is set against Robespierre as two differing approaches to the replacement of the nobility. The democratic process, embodied by the parliament which drives the escalation of the final act, is not spared – useful “allies” in an activist movement, the privileged and apparently sympathetic voices which appear to be helping to ordinary people up, turn out to be self-interested parties trying to corrupt it. The series is always heightened and dramatic, much as Poldark is with its dramatic gallops to save a man from death in prison, or to escape customs-men with food needed to feed the poor, or high-stakes card games to save a family’s reputation – but it is unafraid to use that drama to shout its politics front and centre. Returning thus to Downton Abbey with its unwillingness to engage with the political issues it cannot ignore; they are simply, selfishly, used as backdrops to the petty tribulations of the rich with often no sense of scale or menace.
I think it is reasonable to say that even pulp, light historical entertainment – for to compare Poldark or Rose of Versailles to A Place of Greater Safety or Wolf Hall or any number of other historical fictions is to clearly see a difference in tone and entertainment style – a political point can be made, and probably should be. An enduring lesson I learned from reading Troubles was that political apathy, when the subject of revolution and elites is at hand, is political conservatism. Downton Abbey may have sympathetic servants, and depict a world in which modernity is constantly encroaching but never quite arriving, but it is doing so from a conservative-apathetic position much like the Major in Troubles. These issues are inconveniences, but can be mediated around and put up with. Of course, in Troubles, they cannot – and it is this which is the novel’s thesis. A story about elites being mildly inconvenienced by their declining grasp is ultimately a story presenting elites as desirable, affable things. Rose of Versailles, by contrast, is a story about the declining grasp of elites from someone given the chance to be a part of one who rejects it. It is that, I think, that makes it both hugely enjoyable (insofar as a story so full of high tragedy can be enjoyed ) and hugely political.