Warning: This article is a reflection after having read the entire series. A lot of spoilers are mentioned. This review is also a part of the Manga Moveable Feast hosted by Matt Blind. See the other reviews and hopefully you’ll be encouraged to read Emma as well
Years ago, a friend asked me of my opinion of Emma. I had to correct her and asked if she was referring to Jane Austen’s Emma or the Kaoru Mori’s manga. Of course, she was referring to the latter (although she had to think twice since in a way, both are similar) and she felt that as a history major and a manga enthusiast, I had a lot of things to say about the manga and she thought I could give a word on its historical accuracy. It honestly surprised me because as much as the entire manga is lined with images of Victorian England, at that time, I was really more caught by the story of Emma and William. Of course, back then, I was fresh from following the monthlies and like a sparkly-eyed teenager, I was rooting for the romance to work. My mind was full of William and Emma’s love affair that I answered, “There’s really more to Emma than its history.”
But as time passed and after having read it again in full, this time for this Manga Moveable Feast, I realized that while Emma’s romance was beyond history, it was because the story was steeped in its history that made the romance beautiful. Emma was not just a manga about romance but a true Victorian story of love and more.
Social classes are serious business in Victorian England
Kaoru Mori set Emma towards the late 1890s, a time when Victorian England was still an industrial and colonial power in the world. As stressed in the manga, there’s a delicate balance between the different social classes in England. You had the poorest of the poor, what Emma was in her youth — a street rat with no knowledge beyond breathing, eating, and listening to people’s orders. Then there were the proletariats, the working class as seen through the likes of Al and maybe the unnamed factory owners who lined the street of London. These men were as important as the machinery of that age. Without them, families like the Jones wouldn’t be part of the new rich, the Industrialists who have built companies that gave Britain its riches, beyond what the aristocrats, the royalty of British society, can provide with their already dwindling feudal lands.
Like with every sociological study, you can imagine that social pyramid where at the base there’s the impoverished, above them are the proletariats, the industrialists before them, and at the tip are the aristocrats. At this time, the lines have been clearly marked and while some can try to cross the lines, a thick line remained between those who have and those who have none. Those in the lowest tier could mingle granted they never had enough power to affect those who were in the upper tiers. It was something set in stone, something impossible and immovable. To even try to climb up the ladder was considered immoral and improper in their society. Hence, Emma found this difficult when she realized she was in love with William Jones. As much as she had loved, she did not want to disgrace him.
The aristocrats, as seen through the story of Viscount Campbell and Richard Jones, could choose to grant their ‘position’ in society unto the industrialists out of their ‘unmentionable’ need1. The only way to secure a title in society was through marriage. Think of the Hapsburg intermarriages but smaller in scale. If you were an industrialist who wanted the recognition of the powerful aristocrats, then it was best to marry one. If you were an aristocrat who had spent too much on his horses, then it was ideal to marry a rich business family.
This was why social gatherings like debuts, balls, and lavish dinners were very important at that time. Troublesome as it appeared, these had to be done to know who were the people one should associate with. In this manga, we saw William in the first volume declining every party that he could attend. He was from the generation who no longer saw the worth of these kinds of connections and had found particular liberties that they could take now that they had their own wealth. Admittedly, the period of Emma was a time of practicality — a period when everyone knew the worth of every shilling. At the same time, it was still a period where high society still had a clout in England.
A practical yet romantic love
In the first volume, we witnessed how William and Emma fell in love and how they were still feeling the step of the other as they dance a crazy waltz in around London. I honestly found this part cute and in many ways it captured the romantic in me. Mori paced their romance as you would visualize it in an Austen book where she had panels dedicated to how their eyes met or how their feet shuffled to chase the other or the thrill of waiting for the other in hopes to chance upon a romance. In many ways her images tell the story of what the two could not say in public.
As much as they expressed their love in their little movements, the words were difficult to say as though it was hard to admit or bear the weight of love that was not possible. The two knew too well how big the differences in their lives were and Emma knew she had no place William’s society. But in a place where everyone (from aristocrat to the poor) had to pay a penny to see the wonders of the world, the two of them were considered equal. It was really only now that I appreciated the significance of the Crystal Palace. It was the only place in England that made William and Emma equals in Victorian England. Funny how it only took a penny to do that.
It’s all about the money and the parties
A friend once said that money was a characteristic of Victorian literature. Many writers took meticulous detail in explaining how much one thing cost and it was in many ways a reflection of how Victorian life valued money.
While re-reading Emma, I found that Kaoru Mori has shown this monetary detail with absolute care. In fact it’s her cute side story of Kelly and Doug was the best example out of all them. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a manga about a maid and romance in Victorian England. It was suddenly a true Victorian story where people were truly concerned with money and their social standing that every penny was spent either to get by or get the next best dress for the next ball.
Emma was never short of showing these two aspects of Victorian culture and what I love about it was although these were at the heart of Victorian society, a number of people have grown tired of their rigid social lives that they were starting to ignore away from it. Mori managed to capture that in the little tale of William’s parents and William’s own choice in love.
This frustration with socializing was not as unique as Mori presented it. I’m not sure if she had been an Anglophile to know these details, but I’m quite sure that the more she researched about Victorian England, the more she understood about these fragile social relations and the weariness it brought upon many folks. Many Victorians at that time were also tired of it and many chose to hermit from these occasions and have been considered eccentrics and were highly ostracized in spite of their contributions to society. This was best seen in the story through William’s mom. Although they did mention that she had a health condition, because she was not able to adapt to the demands of society, her disappearance wasn’t taken well and it brought more damage to the Jones than what Richard would have wanted.
Love conquers all, right?
In spite of all these difficulties found in Victorian society, William and Emma fought to the locks of their hair to keep the love they shared in London2. I love the inclusion of the eccentrics, William’s mom and Dorothea, as they showed how superficial society was and that anyone could really be a true noble and class had really nothing to do with it.
Of course, the heart of the story was William and Emma’s romance and I love how they completely beat the odds just to love each other as freely as they wanted. There were many moments in the manga where it was not impossible to feel the weight of their emotions. It was heartbreaking to see Emma and William hold each other as if it were the last; the difficulty of accepting their fate and yet wanting to be free of it. What was brilliant of Mori was how she made this impossible romance real. Every page was careful construction of their world so that we readers could understand where they stood in society and why this romance was not exactly a flight of fancy but rather a difficult yet real one.
I honestly appreciate how Mori managed to present this romance without compromising the rich background of Victorian England. She took time in carefully building the characters and the plot and the world they lived in that by the last panel we knew that it was a love worth all its troubles. And it is rare to find historically rich manga like this one. While Emma and William may be fictional characters, they could have been anyone in Victorian England. And while many of us believe that this was merely just another tale of love, in history, this was also a tale of love conquers all.