Sunday, 15 January 2017

All in the Execution: A Review of 'Emma: A Victorian Romance, Omnibus 1' by Kaoru Mori (2002 Manga)

Emma: A Victorian Romance shows it’s all in the execution. Open a compendium of stock-plots to ‘forbidden love, interclass’, and you’ll find Emma’s outline. Yet Kaoru Mori avoids going through the motions, imbuing an old story with calm life.    

When William, a member of the landed gentry, visits his former governess in London, he grows infatuated with her maid, Emma. Although Emma catches all the young men’s eyes, William may have caught her eye, too. But, as they say, in Victorian England there are two nations, the Upper-classes and the Lower, and never shall the two cross. Can William and Emma’s sapling love survive the boot of propriety and practicality?
 The difference between a ‘tale as old as time’ and a ‘done-to-death bore’ rests in the execution. Love between upstairs and downstairs is the go-to forbidden love story. Emma: A Victorian Romance does not subvert the formula, it merely imbues it with enough life it seems more naturalistic than formulaic. It also avoids mounting a platitudinous soapbox by making classism the story’s narrative conflict, not its theme.

Obstacles to William and Emma’s love are external, not internal. Societal beliefs about class distinction threaten to keep our lovers apart, not selfishness, bull-headedness, nor mismatches in the personalities’ of our lovers. The only internal obstacles are their superficial internalistions of class prejudice. One of them will think, ‘Oh, it cannot work, for I am here and my love is there.’ Going on this first omnibus (which may be premature, as there are five), our lovers’ need not overcome personal short-comings; they must overcome classist prejudice. Certainly, overcoming prejudice is a transformation (imagine the racist who becomes an civil rights campaigner), but it would be a massive one for these characters. Due to the limits of human empathy, author effort, and reader taste, characters in historical fiction tend not to be that historical. At base, William and Emma are modern humans in a period setting. I get the sense that William and Emma’s classism is not weaved into their worldview, as it would be for a real Victorian (and, indeed, for William’s family). Their classism seems an easily dispelled delusion, rather than fundamental belief.

Emma is a subdued love story. But while it does not plunge the reader into roaring rushes of romance, it is idealised. Emma and William’s meeting is serendipitous: he meets her while visiting his old governess. Neither misunderstandings nor crossed-purposes trammel their courtship. Love rivals appear, for both William and Emma, but, for now, they lack the allure to pull apart our lovers. Yet ‘love story’ fits this tale more than ‘romance’, or at least better than ‘romance’ meaning ‘bodice-ripper’. Our lovers’ first kiss is shot from behind, and tame besides. They are effectively in private when they kiss, and they only kiss. (Albeit, their ‘private’ place is a closed-for-the-night public place, but in a roaring romance that would be immaterial.) Sexual attraction does not burst from the page; chaste tenderness marks their love, like a Victorian love story.

Mori’s decompressed plotting fits the story’s easy-going nature. Why depict in two panels what she could in two pages? In her afterword to the first volume, Mori self-deprecatingly says the only reason Emma takes a page to put on her glasses is: ‘It’s important.’ Although a sequence may have minimal story significance, Mori lingers on it to convey character perspective. We spend two pages in the POV of one of William’s love rivals, his gaze roaming over Emma. (Bonus points for not feeling leery.)

The main conflict only materialises two-hundred pages in, when William discovers his father’s opposition to his love. While two-hundred pages is short in relative terms (the series totals around two-thousand), in absolute terms two-hundred pages is a long time. Reading this in monthly serial form, this may have infuriated me. In omnibus form, the story does not seem padded. Mori lingers on the opening days of Emma and William’s courtship; she develops, and gets us comfortable with, the status quo, and only then does she drop the main conflict.

Then again, this late-coming central conflict may have resulted from the necessary improvisation of serial plotting, rather than intention. For some of the first volume, it seems the central conflict will not be familial/societal opposition, but a love triangle. Hakim, an Indian prince, stays on Williams estate (doing all those zany things Indian nobles do: elephants, etc.). He crushes on Emma, just like William. Here we have entirely conventional conflict for a romance. But soon Mori drops this plot thread. (Maybe she picks it up in later volumes.) Perhaps she saw ‘love triangle’ as too conventional, or maybe it didn’t sufficiently mine the Victorian setting, like class-prejudice does, or maybe she realised her Indian Prince was too nice of a character to seriously vie for William’s lady-love.   

While the manga has an overall slow pace, each panel invites the reader to linger, not for their abounding detail (they are quite minimal), but their silence and stillness. Although the panel-to-panel progress of Emma produces the illusion of movement, many of the individual panels seem captured instants, unmoving.

Mori uses long sequences of panels absent of sound effects. The comics’ theorist, Scott McCloud, writes that sound creates time in a static image. How can sound, a phenomenon with duration, exist outside time? If a sound effect exists within a panel, we subconsciously match the duration of the panel to the duration of the sound. The total absence of sound, however, does not make a panel feel shorter, but unending, as there is no time-frame to limit the image. Emma often forgoes sound effects, which invites the readers to linger on images. This is not a languorous lingering, like looking at a very slow motion, but as one would linger looking at a painting.

More than for its story, I recommend Emma, for sequences like those I have just mentioned. The plot is serviceable, but conventional. Emma’s tone sells the book more than its story. One can find countless renditions of Victorian-flavoured interclass-love elsewhere, and with equal competency. Its tone of slow calmness is not so prevalent. 

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