The Spring 2020 Manga Guide
Goodbye, My Rose Garden
What's It About?In 1900, a young Japanese woman named Hanako travels to England hoping to meet her favorite author. When she cannot, she accepts a position as lady's maid to Lady Alice, eldest daughter of Earl Brandon and a vociferous reader herself. At Barrow House, the Earl's country seat, Hanako begins to hear some strange rumors about Lady Alice and other women. Hanako doesn't understand why Lady Alice should be disrespected for her preferences nor why she is being gently forced into marriage with a man she does not love, but all of these things begin to add up to a reason why the one service Lady Alice asks of Hanako is that one day she kill her.
Is It Worth Reading?
There are two major things that make Dr. Pepperco's Goodbye, My Rose Garden stand out: research and the fact that Lady Alice directly faces homophobic attitudes. The latter is informed by the former; in their afterword, the creator specifically says that they did research not only into the end of the Victorian era, but also how lesbians would have been treated at the time, and the results were not, as you may imagine, pretty. Lady Alice is the subject of rumors within both society and her own household because of her potential relationship with a former servant, and to make matters even worse, she scandalously helped her previous lady's maid marry a nobleman. While none of this is quite enough to get her dropped from her social set, it's more than enough to make her feel like an outsider and a freak of nature. These are themes that other yuri manga has touched on, but none of them (in my reading, at least) have taken them as seriously as this book does, and that really helps this series to feel like something different from the usual offerings.
What really makes it, though, is the clear amount of research that went into it. Clothes are correct for the period to the point where you can tell by the women's outfits whether they're wearing a corset or not and if that corset is tightly or loosely laced. The details in the backgrounds and on Lady Alice's clothes are beautiful, and even the way Hanako carries herself and moves changes depending on whether she's wearing western clothes or her outfits from Japan. Novels mentioned are all what was popular in classic authors (I can forgive Dr. Pepperco for not bringing up the popular fiction of the day, since I'm the only person I know who actively reads it right now) and the fact that she brings up Oscar Wilde's imprisonment and death does a lot to cement the world building and the storyline she's writing. For Lady Alice, a gay woman when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, learning of Wilde's death would have chilling consequences and absolutely might make her consider her own future in less than rosy terms. After all, he was famous and a nobleman – if the government could get him, how is she, as a woman who can't even vote, any safer?
It's an especially nice touch that this reference is in the volume because it's fairly exclusively told from Hanako's point of view, so we don't get much, if any, of Lady Alice's firsthand thoughts. Hanako doesn't understand why anyone should care about who someone loves or is attracted to, and this could get her in trouble later on – in fact, it very nearly does with Lady Alice's fiancé, who warns Hanako off as a potential rival for Alice's affections. Lady Alice is made to feel “unnatural” by everyone for just being herself, and the fact that Hanako finds this baffling and not a little mean may be Alice's saving grace. But it also might not be enough, and we may not actually get a happy ending to this story. Often that would be a dealbreaker for me – but in this case, I'm going to keep reading, even if it's a for a foolish hope.
I will admit, this guide has been tough. At least, that was the case. But then I read the first volume of Goodbye, My Rose Garden, and I remembered exactly why I love manga and why I love writing for this feature.
Goodbye, My Rose Garden is a beautiful, moving period piece about stifling heteropatriarchy, internalized queer self-hatred and trying to achieve your dreams in a world that disallows it. It centers on two women, the servant Hanako, an immigrant from Japan, and the noble Lady Alice. Hanako is kind of like a less ditzy, more intellectual Tohru Honda from Fruits Basket; a person of deep empathy and candor, who is not afraid to speak her mind and will do anything to protect people, even if it is from themselves. And Lady Alice desperately needs protection. She is gay, after all, and the book's high society elites spread rumors about her, the world affording her no ability to be who she is (she is also heavily implied to be the real face behind the acclaimed writer Victor Franks—yet another thing she must hide). In a desperate bid to escape this horrible reality, she has tasked Hanako with carrying out her death. The book's hook comes from this central conceit, and though it executes its story through melodrama and romantic intrigue, the dark, terrible heart of this situation is always given center stage, never censored.
There's a metaphor used throughout the book; that of a rose being cut down because it has broken out in black spots. In the eyes of the garden's caretakers, this sullies the pristine beauty of the flowers. The roses must be uniform and must not ‘wither’, after all. What this represents is obvious, especially if, like me, you are queer. Any feelings we have that deviate from the heteropatriarchal norm are shunned and reviled when we express them. Viewed as ‘deviant’. As invalid, as ruining the sanctity of the garden. And when we are met with this scorn, we come to hate ourselves. We feel obligated to cut ourselves down, so we don't bother people, so we don't infect the rest of the world with our disgusting, abhorrent sickness. Therefore, Lady Alice feels that she must die. Except the beautiful thing about Goodbye, My Rose Garden is that there is a counter to this despair, a world outside of it, in Hanako. Hanako always points out the arbitrary, cruel standards that govern the world even when it is improper, Hanako does not see Lady Alice's queerness as an ailment in need of a cure. Lady Alice is not sick, after all. The sickness is in the world around her, in the world around us, buried within the garden long before the spots proliferated. There is only one way to recover. We must say goodbye to the rose garden and its world of false beauty, as Hanako does. Our passions are real, and they are beautiful. Never again will they be cut down.
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