Author: Kaoru Mori
Manga genre: Josei/historical
Number of volumes: 10 (single), older edition or 5 (omnibus), newer edition
Still in print? Yes.
Emma is, in short, the story of the forbidden love between a maid and a gentleman. The story is set in London, in 1895, where Emma, the main character, works as the maid of an elderly widow. A homeless orphan girl, Emma was taken in by the strict but kind Mrs Stownar, who teaches her how to read and write, and how to be a proper maid. She has to wear thick spectacles to be able to see, but is still considered a beauty. Mrs. Stownar used to work as a governess, and the story begins as William Jones, one of her former students, decides to pay her a surprise visit. Emma, on her way out, cracks William in the face with the door just as he is about to knock. They are both shy, reserved people, and once the shock has worn off, a quiet attraction starts to blossom between them.
The characterisation is so multifaceted, so spot on. Rather than outright ask Emma if her vision is bad, Mrs Stownar lies about there being a dog in the yard. And only when Emma squints, rather than say she can’t see a dog out there, does Mrs Stownar ask. As someone who has been alone for most of her life, Mrs Stownar clearly has a hard time allowing herself to care about anyone, so it is perfectly logical for her to raise Emma but also keep her at arms’ length like this. And there are many subtle hints about how much the two women care about each other. Such as Emma refusing to let William buy her new spectacles, even though her vision has deteriorated in the years since she got them, because her glasses were given to her by Mrs Stownar.
The first chapters are warm and idyllic, as Emma and William fall in love and he contrives one excuse after another to keep seeing her. But their little bubble of happiness is a fragile thing. The society of the times dictates that people can’t date across their social classes, and there are countless obstacles in their way. Mori tells the story / delves into the period so skilfully that you really do buy into the idea that a relationship between William and Emma would be impossible.
The upwardly mobile Joneses are a successful merchant family, and as the oldest son, William is under huge pressure – both to take over the family business and to secure their position through an advantageous marriage. William may have been brought up rich, but since his father is a self-made businessman, they are not considered “proper” members of the aristocracy. This means that their position is tenuous, so William’s father is desperately keen to acquire respectability through marriage. The same goes for the Viscount Campbell, whose fortunes are declining. Even though he despises the Jones family as social upstarts, the Viscount agrees to a marriage between his youngest daughter, Eleanor, and William Jones.
For a manga set in Victorian London, Emma still manages to be very diverse – thanks, in no small part, to Hakim Atawari, William’s best friend and total opposite. They were classmates at Eaton, and Hakim is outgoing where William is reserved, shrugging off all of Williams concerns about being proper and urging him to live for himself instead. Hakim arrives at the Jones’ mansion as early as chapter 3, wearing a turban and riding an elephant. He claims to be travelling incognito, but since Hakim’s take on that term is somewhat flexible, he brings along a retinue of servants, dancers and several elephants. Unlike William’s family, Hakim supports and encourages his relationship with Emma, even though he also likes her – his friendship and honesty stand in sharp contrast to the way William’s white, English peers behave. “You’re both from the same England, aren’t you,” he demands, when Emma says that she and William are too far apart.
Emma starts off as a gentle romance and comedy of manners. But, it turns into something of an action story as Emma is kidnapped, and William and Hakim must solve the mystery of her disappearance. The story darkens, as we get to see the intrigues behind the scenes of “polite society”, with the Viscount Campbell as the spider at the very heart of the web. And even William’s family have to learn that status isn’t everything, as they lose much of their social standing because of William’s actions.
A truly awe-inspiring amount of research was put into this series, as Mori herself details in the mini-comics at the end of each volume. Considering it’s a Japanese woman’s take on Victorian England, it reads as incredibly authentic. Mori has captured the same subtlety of tone that you would find in a Jane Austen novel. And the art is exquisite from the start. Volumes of meaning are conveyed in a word or a gesture, such as the scene where Emma puts her hand on William’s arm in the seventh volume, before he takes her into a society ball for the first time. After seven volumes of trying to “do the right thing” and suppress her own feelings, Emma can finally stand up tall and walk next to William as his equal.
The ending might seem a bit abrupt, but there are three extra volumes’ worth of side stories to dig into after you finish the main arc. These provide a deeper look into the lives some of the secondary characters, examining their motivation and showing the reader the story from their point of view. The only edition that’s currently in print is from Yen Press, and weighs in at a hefty £25 per volume, because they are 2-in-1 hardbacks. However, there are also single volumes from the old CMX edition (also in English) floating around on Amazon. (Most of my volumes are from CMX, though I also have two of Yen Press books, since the middle volumes of Emma are impossible to find as standalones.) This series may be an investment, but I promise you, it’s a very worthwhile one.