Looking thoughtfully out at the reader, the heroine of Kaoru Mori's Victorian romance Emma (CMX) seems an unlikely subject to have caught the shojo audience's fancy. Bedecked in a maid outfit, hair pulled up, her large shy eyes behind an equally huge pair of wire-rims, she looks so unassuming. Yet the humble servant proves a magnet for more than one male member of the city gentry.
Foremost among our heroine's would-be suitors is William Jones, eldest son of a "quite prominent" family of merchants. Though William finds the idea of class divides unpleasant (early, we see him gently chiding a servant for calling him "young master"), his bourgeois father is firmly invested in the values of "fashionable society." Clearly, the primary conflict in Emma's romance will arise out of its class system. "Great Britain is one," William states at one point, "yet within it are two countries."
As dramatized by self-confessed Anglophile Mori, Emma is a lovingly detailed reconstruction of the 19th century Upstairs/Downstairs mores. A meticulously paced tale full of side-long glances and tiny character moments, it is defiantly unlike much of the teen shojo manga that American audiences know. The artist shies away from adolescent histrionics and remains committed to a consistent visual treatment of her characters (no sudden bursts of cartoonishness here — though she does feature herself as a sketchy cartoon sprite in a comic three-page afterword). But her characterization is so precise and appealing, conveyed as much by what her characters hold back as what they say, that it keeps us engrossed in this old-fashioned romance of manners. Complimented on her looks at one point, woman-of-few-words Emma says simply, "I've been through a lot," and that one line has us eager to learn just what it is she's referring to.
The young girl is working as maid to Lady Kelly Stownar, a woman once forced by sudden widowhood to be a governess for the Jones family, who knows William from his boyhood. When William comes to visit Lady Kelly, he's instantly love-struck by the quietly beautiful Emma, a development that is monitored from the sidelines by the firm-but-kindly former governess. "If she were just a tad less meek," Kelly thinks of her servant, "she could have any number of suitors. But the thing about Emma is she doesn't care a fig about that."
Lady Kelly has mixed feelings abut William's obvious attraction for Emma. "I wish the young master would act more like a responsible adult," she thinks, though, in comparison to his old Etonian chum Hakim, William is a model of maturity. The wealthy son of Indian royalty, Hakim shows up at the Jones estate with both dancing girls and an elephant. An unapologetic hedonist, he provides a marked contrast to William's mild rebelliousness and a visual relief from the very proper Victorian milieu. "No one gets the purpose of the Indian girls," Mori jokes in her afterword. "Actually I just like this kind of character."
The art in Emma is packed with detailed cross-hatching and intricately imagined 19th century architecture. If the characters occasionally look a bot too fresh-faced for the period, well, that's just a romance convention, innit? As a storyteller, Mori excels in scenes with limited dialog: a sequence where Emma tries on a new pair of eyeglasses, silently examining herself clearly in the mirror for what we know is the first time in years, is sweetly elegant, while the moment where Hakim arrives with his entourage shows the artist just as skilled at visual hoopla. This is a book I'd give to a comics reader who is still on the fence about shojo: its straightforward storytelling pulls you into its world and keeps you there.
Emma's main storyline was written to a conclusion in seven volumes, though the artist added three more books to the series rounding out the stories of the series' secondary characters. CMX, a year after it released the concluding volume, has recently started publishing these appendices, a fact sure to cheer those readers who've become wrapped up in Emma's World. After reading the first volume in this engrossing period entertainment, I suspect I'm not gonna be satisfied to stop just at seven books.