Book Review: Emma by Kaoru Mori

Kaoru Mori's manga series Emma tells a star-crossed love story between a maid and a wealthy gentleman in Victorian England. This series is beautifully drawn and deeply compelling. 

Emma by Kaoru Mori

Book cover for Emma by Kaoru Mori shows a neatly dressed woman with brown hair and glasses wearing a maid's uniform in front of a palatial row of houses in Victorian London.
CMX, 2006 
Format: ebook, also available as paperback
Translated from the original Japanese

The saga begins... 

In Victorian England, a young girl named Emma is rescued from a life of destitution and raised to become a proper British maid. When she meets William, the eldest son of a wealthy family, their love seems destined. But in this world, even matters of the heart are ruled by class distinctions.”

From the Emma (Emma #1) Book Description on Goodreads

What I thought about Emma

This year, a friend and I are doing the Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge together. One of the tasks is to read a work of manga. I’ve read my share of graphic novels, but never manga, so I asked my librarian where I should start. Knowing my deep and abiding love of Jane Austen fan fiction, she suggested I start with the manga version of Jane Austen’s Emma.

Book cover for the Manga Classics edition of Jane Austen's Emma shows a blond girl-child encased in roses and a heart-shaped swath of red ribbon.
The Manga Classics edition of Jane Austen’s Emma.

So I did. Unfortunately, the Manga Classics edition of Jane Austen’s Emma read as if it were a simplified storyboard of an Emma movie adaptation. The text is reduced to the essential bits of dialogue from the original narrative, while the illustrations are tasked with conveying the meaning of all the remaining text. This is how I learned that while Emma is not my favorite Austen novel, I still know it well enough to deeply miss some of the narrative passages that occurred in the original in between the scraps of dialogue.

After finishing that book, I was discontent. I didn’t feel like I’d gotten an authentic manga experience, since I’d read a book originally written for another format entirely and merely adapted to manga. A quick Internet search taught me that there was another Emma that I should read, one that was written originally as manga by a Japanese author. Even better, it was well reviewed and available as an ebook. So I decided to give it a try.

Book cover for the second volume of Kaoru Mori's Emma shows the same oddly elegant maid standing in front of another palatial house. This house is set on park-like grounds, and not in the city.

Yes, I’m also laughing that for my “authentic manga experience” I chose the most British story imaginable–a star crossed love story between a maid and a wealthy gentleman in Victorian England. What can I say? Apparently, I have an instinct for finding that sort of thing.

Kaoru Mori’s Emma is beautifully drawn and deeply compelling. I gobbled up Volumes 1-5 that first afternoon, and spent the next day reading until the main arc was complete at the end of Volume 7.

Mori uses the last three volumes of her series to tell short stories about characters other than Emma and William. I was curious to see how some of the aftershocks played out so I downloaded Volume 8.

While I enjoyed learning more about the secondary characters, the disconnected nature of those stories wasn’t quite what I was looking for. For me, William and Emma’s love story is the essential narrative piece tying all of these people together, and getting a glimpse of the secondary characters’ lives when William and/or Emma weren’t around was interesting, but not exactly what I was looking for.

Cover of Mori's Emma #8 shows a couple other than William and Emma strolling through the Crystal Palace in London.
You can see the change in focus on the cover of Volume 8. That’s not William and Emma, but rather the woman who trained Emma as a maid and her husband.

Don’t get me wrong — Those short stories are also beautifully drawn, emotionally gripping, and packed with fascinating period detail, but what I really wanted was to read more about William and Emma and how they dealt with all of the scorn and half-hearted support they would inevitably receive from those secondary characters as they made their way through the world as a couple in the exceptionally class conscious Victorian society. When I realized that Volumes 9 and 10 also contained short stories about secondary characters in which William and Emma mostly didn’t appear (with the exception of one story that deals with William and Emma’s wedding), I decided to stop reading.

Who Would Enjoy This Series by Kaoru Mori

  • Adult readers who like romances set in the Victorian era with class conflicts and who are either curious about or enjoy reading manga and/or graphic novels. 

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