Emma is a beautifully illustrated period piece by Kaoru Mori that explores a forbidden relationship in Victorian London.
Emma is maid to a former governess, whose young charge William has now grown into a prominent gentleman. He’s interested in Emma after their chance meetings, but he’s unsure of whether to say anything, especially given how strictly class lines are socially enforced. William’s clumsy attempts to demonstrate his affection only reinforce the difference. He thinks nothing of buying a new pair of glasses when needed, while Emma considers a simple lace handkerchief a great prize to be treasured.
Emma is quietly charming, with an open, trusting face under large glasses. As suits the subject matter, the layouts are simple and old-fashioned, made up of boxed rectangular panels. (It’s much more like a traditional American comic than other manga.)
There’s humor, too, brought by William’s Indian friend Hakim, who comes to visit and brings a herd of elephants and a small harem of silent but expressive dancing girls. Hakim is also smitten by Emma, although his culture allows more direct expression of such feelings, and his active embrace of life and new experience tells more about William through their contrast.
The book is a wonderful portrayal of what it might have been like to live in another place and time… and isn’t that the magic of comics of any kind? Showing us someone else’s experience in detail, even if fictional?
As volume 2 opens, Emma and gentleman William are having their first date, visiting the Crystal Palace. Meanwhile, William’s father is setting him up with someone he finds more appropriate for his position. We also meet William’s younger brother and sisters, which gives us more insight into the significant expectations placed on him as the oldest child of the family.
Emma’s honest enjoyment of small pleasures is refreshing. A day off or a room of her own, however shabby, is a rare treat for her. It’s a welcome reminder of how to be grateful and how spoiled most of us are in comparison. Her idea of honest hard work is a lot more than most of us will ever have to face, and she completes it without complaint. Thankfully, she’s often rewarded for it.
There’s so much shown of life in that era — a fancy meal, train travel, the options available for an orphan — that it’s quite a lot to take in. And given the events that happen to the characters… well, it’s obvious to me that the creator is in it for the long haul.
Emma is entering a new phase of her life in volume three. She’s taking the train back to her hometown, and she meets another maid on the trip. The two’s conversation reveals just how special Emma is, even though they meet when they’re mistaken for each other, and the other woman is impressed enough to recommend her for a new position.
It’s different from her previous one; instead of being the only servant, she’s now part of the staff of a big house. It takes her some time to fit into the culture, with her intelligence and abilities considered unusual for a simple maid. Even when she tries to blend in, she can’t help standing out. Her consideration for others and her lack of interest in partying mark her as more mature than some her age. She’s still distracted by thoughts of what she left behind.
The pages seem basic, especially during conversation scenes, but that ignores the amount of research that goes into their construction. The train, for example… the artist likely had to determine what the landscape of the time looked like, the engine, the train cars, inside and out… the clothing, the hats, the kind of candy carried and offered… so many details provide verisimilitude.
In contrast with Emma’s low-key travel, William is next seen boating and picnicking with family and friends. The young ladies are flighty, crushing on their dear Miss Grace (William’s sister) while debating the earning potential of the men. William’s found a new gravity, throwing himself into work and attending social engagements to make the family look good and fulfill his obligations.
Hakim is still a breath of fresh air. He has the useful excuse of being foreign to excuse him saying what everyone’s thinking. And I was pleasantly surprised to see a new character, a German cook, named Johanna.
As volume four begins, William is finding his choice (such as it is) to be the dutiful son stifling and harder to live up to than he thought. William’s youngest brother Colin is heartbreakingly patient, learning at a young age that responsibilities will often prevent one from spending time with loved ones.
William’s interactions with Eleanor, the woman selected to be his bride, are becoming more difficult, complicated by the arrival of her forthright and aggressive sister Monica, Countess Milldrake. He misses Emma, but a coincidence of acquaintance involving his absent mother and Emma’s new mistress leads to their reunion in a dramatic, Cinderella-like fashion.
Volume five starts with a lengthy flashback to how William’s parents met. His father was shunned by society, due to his recent wealth, while his mother didn’t display the skills expected of a young lady. Her only interest or talent was her pets, but as misfits, the two formed a deep bond. Together, they made their family a force that could no longer be ignored, like taking a company to the top, before the effort involved began affecting her health.
London society didn’t take kindly to a country girl who didn’t care much about fitting in, even when she worked at meeting the right obligations, and catty gossips are never satisfied. Seeing the younger parents explains a lot about why William’s father is the way he is in the series’ present day, and the children’s characters owe a lot to both mother and father. When we’re earlier told in the series that the children’s mother chooses to live away from them, I couldn’t imagine a reason that could make sense, but the author does a terrific job making her plight sympathetic.
After that, we return with Emma to her new place, as her employers come home to their estate. As she goes back to her duties, she’s left to ponder William’s mother’s opinion that “it would be difficult to make it work.” The judgment of a woman who knows the forces they’re up against personally is bound to have more impact than a father’s abrupt denial.
All this personal drama is interrupted by a near-disaster, a threatening fire. Emma’s cheerful declaration that a bigger mess is more fun to clean up reveals more about her to her co-workers; some understand, while others think she’s odd. Those wondering about her only have more to chew on when her relationship with William is found out. With all those people in the houses, all watching each other, how could it not be?
The first two books were less about what happened and more about the exploration of another society and the kind of people who found themselves within it. Later books continue to build the full cast, and secrets cause relationships to change quickly. Just as the reader has hope that Emma and William might have a chance, complications develop with his fiancee’s family. Her father the Viscount has an unpleasant temper and the standing to get away with criminal acts.
A short interlude begins volume six, as we visit William’s family. Little sister Vivian is reading The Prisoner of Zenda, an addictive adventure that her siblings also sample as they ponder William’s upcoming marriage. He’s become uncertain about the match, but there are more plans and schemes than he’s aware of in play, especially since the Viscount is now involved. The novel foreshadows a twist in this story as well, as some are determined to keep Emma and William apart, whatever it takes. Their brief moment of happiness in book five must tide the reader over until they are again reunited.
Volume seven concludes the series. It begins dramatically, with a confrontation and the return of Hakim. (But then, there’s always adventure when he’s around — he’s an inciting incident all on his own.) Meanwhile, Emma is pondering where her life has taken her. She feels that she didn’t fight or resist while William and she were becoming more emotionally involved, even though she should have — she wasn’t his class, and he was promised to a more suitable partner — so as a kind of compensating balance, she didn’t act to free herself when she was swept along in a completely unexpected direction.
Thankfully, William’s having none of that. Together, two passive people (raised to be so due to their situations and positions) find strength in each other, even to the point of inspiring others. Emma’s intelligence finally leads her to ask for help from an unexpected source, leading to the happy conclusion.
Kaoru Mori’s art is even more developed, with plenty of character detail even on pages with a higher-than-usual number of panels. She’s comfortable letting the emotion come through in wordless sections, which is the right choice for such a powerful ride. Anyone who’s read Emma can’t help be affected by the struggles of the two leads to accomplish something so simple: being in love.
The series easily envelops the reader in a different world. It’s especially well-suited to anyone who’s enjoyed any of Jane Austen’s works. The parchment-textured covers are a nice detail that contribute to the old-fashioned feel.