Emma, Volumes 1–7
written by Kaoru Mori
If someone told me a year ago that one of the most compelling historical romances about Victorian London would be a Japanese manga, I’m not sure I would have believed them. While manga excels at romances, a tale that compellingly explores the rigid class barriers and undeniable attachment between a ladies’ maid and a gentleman is both more grounded and more subtle than many manga are. Emma never discards manga’s conventions, making it a useful story for convincing nonmanga fans of manga’s broader appeal and shows further evidence that manga can rival the best of Western comics in diversity, eloquence, and vivid storytelling.
The initial volume introduces us to the shy but determined Emma, a young maid whose employer, Mrs. Stowner, is a wise if demanding retired governess who once worked for the nobility. Mrs. Stowner has encouraged Emma to become more than most maids might dream, gaining an education and a sense of her own worth, even if her rung in society is set. A former pupil from a wealthy middle-class family, William Jones, visits the household, even now intimidated by his battleaxe of a governess but compelled by propriety to call. Beautiful, intelligent Emma immediately catches his attention, and in the way of young noblemen who aren’t quite aware of their position, William soon starts making up excuses to visit Emma, to accompany her on errands, and to push, just a little bit, for more. Emma, despite herself, warms to William’s attentions and allows herself to fall in love.
Reality soon comes crashing in, however, as Mrs. Stowner passes away and the two realize their way together is breaking apart. Each tries to follow the correct path and put aside their growing affection. William, as the eldest son, must fulfill his family’s wishes by landing a suitable fiancée and ensure their rise to the gentry class by marriage. Emma, all too aware of her low position in relation to William, must find suitable employment before she’s reduced to living on the streets. Fleeing her attachment to Edward, she lands a position at a large country house. Her industriousness and close-mouthed demeanor invite speculation from her fellow servants even as she impresses her employers with her education and practicality. Neither Emma nor William can completely forget the other, glimpsed in Emma’s rare moments of private loneliness and William’s growing distaste for family parties and society galas, but they each try to make the best of their situation.
While the series uses Emma and William’s connection as the focus, Mori excels as illuminating their world with an array of engaging, three-dimensional personalities surrounding the would-be lovers. William’s father is stern and desperate to keep up the family name. Having endured his peers’ disapproval of his unconventional wife, he and William’s mother now live separately for his good name and her health, and he does not want to see similar regrets curse his son. His siblings, who provide many of the choicest examples of how family knows best how to make you laugh and want to scream, are sympathetic to William’s feelings but fear the repercussions. William’s Indian friend Prince Hakim and his harem provide comic relief as he finds everyone’s inability to say what they mean ridiculous (he is, admittedly, the least historically accurate of the cast, but you forgive him for goading everyone else into action). A compelling facet of the series portrays William’s new fiancée, Eleanor Campbell, a young woman who’s doing everything according to the rules while still hoping that she can forge a love match amid all of the propriety. It’s a testament to Mori’s sense of character that Eleanor is neither a dimwit nor a harpy, and her slow realization that William’s heart is already taken makes her situation, and powerlessness, all the more heartbreaking. Emma’s view on the world is similar to Gosford Park or Upstairs, Downstairs: the invisible world of servants where hierarchies can be just as strict and presumption above one’s station draws icy looks and unexpected allies. Her reserve and competence inspire a lot of gossip and occasional resentment. Whatever practical advice Emma has internalized, it’s obvious that her heart is still reaching out toward London.
Throughout the seven volumes, there are melodramatic moments, especially toward the finish as stakes are raised and it’s no longer just a question of whether Edward and Emma will find each other but how far everyone else will go to keep them apart. What makes the whole series work, though, is how powerfully all of the plot is grounded in real emotion. Every glance, touch, and gesture tells volumes, and not just between the lovers: One of the most moving scenes in the series is when Emma gently packs away her dead mistress’s house, moving through the familiar rooms for the last time. The inevitable admission of feelings between Emma and William, an incredibly satisfying romantic moment, is shown almost without a sound, making you feel every bit of their teary embrace. All the attention to detail and setting doesn’t make readers impatient—instead, every panel extends the tension, and you read along with the feeling that all the emotions are simmering just underneath the surface, and if you relish the feeling that each turning page might unleash a flood. The atmosphere of Victorian London is in every panel, in every detail of costume, architecture, and technology, and Mori’s meticulous research shows in every line. At the same time, her clean, eloquent character design telegraphs the emotions and state of mind that are the heart of the tale.
If you put Emma on the shelf next to what many hold up as great manga, like Lone Wolf and Cub, Akira, or Abandon the Old in Tokyo, you’ll get a lot of folks looking at you a bit funny. I know a lot of readers (let’s face it, guys especially) who look at the cover and raise their eyebrows. The cover certainly does promise pretty maids and, with its creamy tones and textured paper, a whiff of nostalgia for a past we never knew. What you can’t tell from the cover is that alongside the lace and tea there is a laser-sharp criticism of society’s rules and the overarching understanding that all the love in the world cannot easily overcome significant gaps in wealth and upbringing. Don’t expect a Pygmalion romance dressed up in wide eyes and aprons, and don’t discount it just because there are no samurai or wise-cracking heroes. Prepare instead for a historical drama inspired by Austen, Wharton, or Eliot, and dive right in.-- Robin Brenner