In 19th century England, social class meant everything; what you learned, where you lived, your daily life, and even who you could love and marry. Emma, the protagonist of Kaoru Mori’s manga of the same name, is a young woman from a destitute past who, through a chance meeting with an aging governess, is lucky to be employed as a maid and receive a first-rate education. William, on the other hand, is the heir to the wealthy Jones family; with no aristocratic blood and having only recently risen the ranks to high society, keeping up appearances and social obligations are of the utmost importance to his family. One day, William decides to pay a visit to his old governess, Mrs. Stownar, who just happens to be the very one Emma works for. Soon, with a little encouragement from Mrs. Stownar, a cross-social class romance buds and the two finds themselves fighting between love and society.
When I first read Kaoru Mori’s beautifully drawn and masterfully written romance, Emma, I was swept away by the story of forbidden love between Emma and William. The story starts off light, perfectly capturing the slightly awkward yet sweet and warming feeling of two people falling in love with each other. While Mori does use words, often she skillfully expresses emotions through only visuals–a shy blush, a glance, gestures, and actions–that depict them better than any words could. It quickly pulls readers in and holds on tight. But just when you have relaxed into the easy and charming flow of the story and think Emma and William will get together, the class system and life comes down on the young couple, adding new drama.
This seemingly impossible romance is what got me on the first read-through, but after I saw an article naming Emma as a feminist manga, I was a bit surprised; while I love the series, it had never crossed my mind that it’s feminist. Now that I’ve read through the main story (volumes 1-7 out of 10) again, I’m seeing whole new sides to it.
There are actually a lot of strong female characters. Are they running businesses and becoming political leaders? No, but these women are strong-willed, especially in the context of the time period they live in where women had little to no power. However, many of the female characters in Emma are relatively in control of their own lives and/or push the boundaries of the times. Mrs. Stownar was widowed at a young age yet made it own her own as a governess and receives respect from men of many social classes. She even rebels against society subtly by being much less concerned with social classes than most. Emma herself might not seem the strongest and much of the good fortune in her life has been a result of luck, but she’s also got inner strength and perseverance on her side. Emma came as a young child to London with little to no education, no money, and no family to support her. While luck did play a part in, for instance, Emma meeting Mrs. Stownar, she worked hard to get where she’s at and continues to work hard. She also shows guts by pursuing a relationship that defies the rules of society. Not everyone has the strength to goes against the rigid ways of a culture and face the harsh criticism after all. Later in the series, German immigrant Mrs. Meredith is introduced. She’s the wife of a wealthy businessman, but is no slave to the whims of her husband. In addition to her strong-will, she appears to have a very equal relationship and therefore wields a fair amount of power. She actively participates in hiring staff for the household and traveling without her husband on occasions. These are but a few female characters in the series who exhibit strength in the series.
The other thing I love in retrospect about Emma is how the women treat each other. They support each other, something that is great on its own and absolutely wonderful considering the sea of fiction that portrays women constantly trying to undermine other women. Women like Mrs. Stownar and Mrs. Meredith aid Emma in her efforts in life and love and multiple examples of female friendships are shown. Some of the other maids Emma meets do gossip about other women (including Emma), but not in a backbiting way. Even Emma’s rival in love is depicted sympathetically and realistically. She is not trying to hurt Emma or “steal” William the way some female rivals are shown to do; she doesn’t even know Emma exists and truly loves William. It’s very refreshing to see this and is a fine example of Mori’s ability to create deep and original characters.
I fell in love with Emma the first time I read it and rereading it with a new perspective has only deepened my love. If you want a great historical fiction/drama, endearing romance and characters, and beautiful art, I can’t recommend it enough. Unfortunately, this series is currently out-of-print in the U.S. and hard to buy, but check your local libraries and maybe even fellow manga-collecting friends. With any luck, one of our manga publishing companies will pick it up some day and share it with new audiences.