Screw the gentry.
Story/Art: Kaoru Mori
Translation/Adaptation: Sheldon Drzka
Letters: Abigail Blackman
What They Say
Calling upon his former governess, William Jones, gentleman, is startled when his knock is answered by an uncommonly beautiful servant, the soft-spoken Emma. Throughout this visit, William’s eyes drift to the maid whenever she enters the room, and he contrives to meet Emma socially as she goes about her errands. But London society is a web of strict codes and divisions. For the son of a wealthy merchant, seeking out a working-class girl is simply not done! William’s father plans for his son to marry into the peerage and elevate the Jones family to greater heights, but although William says and does what is expected of him, he longs only for Emma’s company…
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
I’ve never been a fan of Jane Austen or the novel of social manners. It’s not because they are popularly regarded as being “girly,” and it’s not because they don’t feature ghosts or vampires or dragons or any of the other fantastic elements that I typically enjoy in my stories. No, I don’t like reading that genre because I get incredibly angry whenever I read them.
Perhaps it’s the American in me. Perhaps that spirit of rugged individualism rises from my gullet and chokes me whenever I read these works. Perhaps I just identify too much with the situation and the characters and feel too strongly for their plight. The heart of a novel of social manners resides in the social mores of the society the novel represents. The stories exist in no small part to encapsulate a particular society, and the best deal with the issues that arise when different societies (typically lower and upper classes) interact.
Emma firmly fits the genre, and as such—as much as I enjoyed the story—it did make me angry. The story begins when William Jones, a gentleman from a rising merchant family, calls upon his former governess. He meets the titular Emma, a beautiful, quiet maid, and is immediately smitten (as was I, to be honest). Sparks fly between the two, and the governess encourages them.
The problem with their love is that England in the 19th Century divided itself along clear class lines. Fueled by centuries of class divisions and the rising belief in Social Darwinism, the nobility believed itself to be better than the commoners. Their position proved, in their eyes, their genetic superiority, creating a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: “We are in charge because we are superior, and we are superior because we are in charge.”
Social climbing did occur, but rarely, and even when a family did lift itself up to the level of the nobility, it forever retained the stain of its commoner origins. Such is the plight of the Jones family. Although possessed of fortune, power, and position, the family (especially William’s father) strives to legitimize itself in the eyes of the gentry, and does so through the time-honored practice of arranged marriages. Despite his love of Emma, William’s family plots to marry him off to Eleanor Campbell, the third daughter of a Viscount. The family views Emma as either a threat to their plans, or a gold-digger plotting to marry her way into high society, and both William and Emma become caught between their desires and his duty to his family.
Can you see why this makes me so angry? I’m not one to suffer arrogance gladly, and the constricting nature of British class society strangles me even though I’m living through it by proxy. Emma does a fabulous job of capturing the complexities of this society, while at the same time telling a sweet love story. I wouldn’t get so upset if I didn’t care for these characters. While William seems to sleepwalk through his life, he is a decent person suffering from the realities of his social situation. Emma stands on the other end of the social spectrum, but like William, much of her suffering derives from her social situation. It wouldn’t be fair to compare the two’s suffering, as Emma wins hands down, but their respective situations paint a clear picture of life on both sides of the tracks in 19th Century England. There are times when you want to jump into the book, Gumby-like, and shake the two for their hesitancy and their caving to societal norms, but that’s only because you care about them and are seeing the situation from an outsider’s perspective.
This perspective is actually given a voice in the manga in the form of Hakim, an Indian Prince who is friends with William. Hakim arrives with a retinue about the size of a small army, including four elephants, and stays with William and his family for the summer. Hakim provides a breath of fresh air to the story because he’s the only character who seems truly free. He does what he wants and doesn’t seem to care what others think—riding an elephant through London, driving a motorcar through William’s home, etc. He sees the situation between Emma and William and even though he also harbors feelings for the maid, he tries to help the two come together.
In this sense, Hakim serves as an audience surrogate. His views on English society and Emma and William’s relationship mirror the reader’s modern perspective. In some ways this makes him a potentially problematic character because it reifies him into the “wise foreigner” archetype. His status as prince also presents issues because his freedom derives from his social status and his environment. While he stands outside of the British social structure, his power and wealth afford him the same privileges as if he were a member of the elite. Despite these issues, Hakim stood as my favorite character. I enjoyed his devil-may-care attitude and envied his ease and freedom. His presence provides a balm to the frustration I felt for Emma and William.
The art in Emma was solid overall, but often inconsistent, especially with character faces. There were times when the characters looked too much alike. I can’t tell you how many times I confused William with his older brother or their father. The depictions of the setting were stronger and more consistent, at times even beautiful. My favorite scene came near the middle of the volume when William and Emma share their first kiss in the Crystal Palace’s botanical garden at night. It’s a beautiful scene that makes excellent use of shadow, perspective, and negative space and really shows off Mori’s artistic ability.
Despite the fact that the British gentry’s actions and attitudes made me want to spit nails, I very much enjoyed Emma. The characters are three dimensional and sympathetic, and their situation struck me deeply. While the art was sometimes spotty, the overall quality of this work was high. Dr. Josh gives this a…
Content Grade: B+
Art Grade: B
Packaging Grade: A
Text/Translation Grade: A
Age Rating: N/A
Released By: Yen Press
Release Date: May 19th, 2015