No, this is not Jane Austen Manga. But it almost could be! Set in Victorian England, Emma is the story of the forbidden love between a quiet and intelligent maid, Emma, and an upper-class man, William. William and Emma first meet because Emma’s employee, Lady Kelly Stower, was William’s teacher when he was young. Lady Kelly is a fascinating character in her own right. Widowed at age 20, she became a governess to make a living. Her strong spirit obviously made an impression on her students, who still visit her now that she’s in her old age.
William and Emma get to spend some time together, and they quickly fall in love. But despite the fact that she’s intelligent and educated, Emma is only a maid, and they both know that William’s powerful family would never accept the match.
Victorian drama? Yes! And no. Yes because there’s excitement and forbidden love and secrets and misunderstandings, and, later in the series, even fainting spells and kidnappings. But no because the general tone of the series is very quiet. The story is set in England, but in a way it still feels very Japanese. I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m always wary of making generalizations like this, especially about cultures I’ve had no direct contact with, but this is the feel I get from Japanese art: very contained, very subtle, very full of emotion but not displaying it in an overt manner. And this is exactly how Emma is.
I loved it. I loved Emma herself, who is graceful, determined and smart. She reminded me a little of Jane Eyre – Emma is perhaps quieter, but just as passionate in her own way. And I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Charlotte Brontë’s novel helped inspire this story. As the story progresses, we find out more about Emma’s past, and she gains more depth. As do the other characters in the story.
I loved the setting too. What’s not to love about Victorian London? And in the later volumes the story is set in Yorkshire too. Kaoru Mori used a historical consultant for the series, and while I’m by no means an expert in the Victorian period, everything feels right. I suppose the only exception would be the dialogue, but that’s alright. Also, the series deals with themes that were certainly relevant in the Victorian period, and that haven’t really ceased to be relevant today, even if in different ways, – social class, gender roles and sexism, the all too common clash between what we want to do and what those who surround us expect of us, and the ever universal themes of love, trust, loneliness, friendship and loyalty. The social criticism, too, is far from dated. Are status and reputation all that important? Not to mention money, of course, and the notion that it somehow it defines a person’s worth.
And if you’re thinking that a Victorian Romance with no emotional outburst is no fun, worry not. There are outbursts. Only they’re rare, and this makes them even more powerful.
There are seven volumes in this series (not actually too long for a Manga series, from what I gather), and I read them all in two days. I won’t give away the ending, of course, but I will tell you that it was very satisfying. It was hopeful – I think you can tell from the very beginning that this won’t be a series with a tragic ending – but it still felt real. It wasn’t too easy. The obstacles Emma and William faced were serious ones in this historical context, and they were taken seriously.
There will be three additional volumes called Emma: Further Tales, devoted to background stories about the series’ secondary characters. I'm very much looking forward to reading those too.
Emma is just lovely. I had never heard of it until recently, but it was actually one of the YALSA’s 2008 Great Graphic Novels for Teens picks (along with other favourites of mine, like Laika, and probable future favourites of mine, like The Arrival). And deservedly so. So hooray! My second foray into Manga was possibly even more successful than my first one.
I’ll leave you with an image with some actual dialogue. It's one of those rare outwardly dramatic moments in the series, and it made me smile:
In Spring it is the Dawn (Vol 1)
The Written World
In Spring it is the Dawn (Vols 2-7)
Life in the Thumb (Vols 1-4)
B&B ex libris (Vol 1)
Bold Blue Adventure (Vol I-V)