As one who was born and raised in England, and a closet bibliophile, it’s no surprise that I’m familiar with many classic works of english literature from around the victorian period, especially those by Dickens, Austen and the Bronte sisters. Unfortunately, many other works that have tried to mimic those worthies have often turned out to be trashy romantic fiction of the first order (Mills & Boon novels and the like).
Imagine my surprise then, to find a manga that was not only based on that period, but was also excellent in almost every aspect. That manga is Emma by Mori Kaoru (not to be confused with Emma by Jane Austen as that has very little to do with this manga).
Mori, a self confessed anglopihile, has attempted something rarely seen in any medium – the meticulous reconstruction of a historical setting, in this case, London and Yorkshire in 1895. The most remarkable achievement of her work though is that, barring a few minor discrepancies, she is almost dead on the mark with her efforts.
The story is a very simple, and sometimes very touching, romance between a maid (Emma), and the eldest son of a wealthy middle class family (William Jones). The manga begins with Emma working as a live-in maid (as was the custom at the time), for retired governess Kellie Stowner, who took the homeless Emma under her wing, trained her to be a maid, and taught her how to read and write (a rarity in Victorian England where much of the populace was illiterate).
One morning Mrs Stowner is visited by a young man named William Jones, a former pupil of hers and heir to the House of Jones. William and Emma meet for the first time, and while William is quite taken by this strange maid who seems oddly composed in his company, Emma is also quite taken with William because of his mannerisms and somewhat impulsive behaviour.
What is impressive about the story is not only the setting, but also the various class conflicts that occur. Emma is a maid, whilst William is middle class. To many outside of England this distinction is often viewed with some ambiguity, but in the interests of making what I will say more understandable I will explain the class distinction in simple terms. The upper class represents the nobility – earls, counts, viscounts, dukes, knights, etc, while the middle class represents those who are well-to-do but have no title (usually wealthy merchant families). Lower or working class represents the farmers, maids, clerks, smiths, etc.
Here’s the key thing to understand about class distinctions – the upper class hate the middle class, and consider the working class to be on the same level as animals. The middle class strive to become upper class, all the while treating the working class with disdain. The working class just want to get on with their lives without too many worries. The sad part is that this hasn’t really changed that much in this day and age, but that’s another story.
These class conflicts add an element to the story that is so often missing from romantic manga, and stories in general. It may be a cliched idea by now, that of the knight sweeping the peasant girl off her feet and them living happily ever after, yet Mori manages to reinvigorate this theme with her characters and settings. The various class distinctions cause frictions for all of the characters, and the somewhat brutal mentality of the upper and middle classes forms an integral part of the story.
The art in Emma is, for want of a better word, exquisite. Mori, in her quest to make this manga as accurate as possible to the time period, has spared no effort in reproducing many signs of the time, be they steam trains, horse-drawn carriages and wagons, newspapers, clothing, money, etc, etc. Everything, every object in the manga is as true to life as it could be (barring one or two small abberations), and the crosshatched “pen and ink” style used throughout the series adds a certain element of authenticity to the story.
Characters are also well designed. The faces are often simple, yet highly expressive in their own way, and Mori’s ability to bring forth the stereotypical “British reserve” of her characters is something wonderful to see. The contrast between the simple features of the characters, and the highly detailed backgrounds, clothing, objects and sundries, serves to draw one’s attention to the characters rather than their surroundings.
The one aspect of the series that I found drew my attention the most was the characters. Both Emma and William are extremely well developed, however Mori has not stopped there as she has also made a concerted effort to develop almost every character in the series. Many of the side characters in this tale are also well developed, and sometimes have entire chapters devoted to them alone. This is another rarity in manga as it is often the case that the side characters are shunted to one side in order to continue developing the story or the main characters. Mori’s remarkable attention to detail, especially with her side characters, serves to draw the reader further into the Victorian era, and gives each character a sense of realism that can often be lacking.
I found this to be one of the most rewarding manga I have ever read, and I would go even further and say that this is one of the most enjoyable works of fiction I have read in a long time. Only one other manga has made me consider it a work of literature rather than popular culture, and that was Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou. Emma is a rarity in manga as it brings together a classic storyline, excellent imagery and believable characters, all within the setting of one of the most remarkable periods of world history – the Industrial Revolution. The sense of realism in the manga is astonishing, as is the depth of the characters.
This is definitely a series I would consider required reading for any fan of classical literature, as well as fans of romance or shoujo manga.
Emma is hands down one of the best, if not the best, romance manga out to date.