Emma A Victorian Romance – Love and Heartbreak in Victorian England


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Emma: A Victorian Romance (Eikoku Koi Monogatari Emma) is a beautifully realised romantic story set in Victorian England and based upon the manga ‘Emma’ by artists Mori Kaoru. Eikoku Koi Monogatari Emma is a classic romantic story about two people from different social backgrounds who fall in love and must struggle against society to be together. It has been used before, and in this particular case it is the story of the romance between William Jones, the eldest son of a wealthy merchant family attempting to break into the gentry class, and Emma, a poor, yet beautiful maid. Emma is a wonderful story, with animation that is muted, but also highly detailed and brilliant to look at, coupled with a truly wonderful story that is emotional, heart-rending, and a joy to watch makes for one of my favourite anime series.

While Eikoku Koi Monogatari Emma is set in Victorian England, it still retains many of the standard romance plot devices, only because of the elements of class, gender and place within Victorian society they take on slightly different meanings from a romance set in a Japanese high school. As William and Emma’s romance grows we start to get other characters thrown into the mix, from Hakim, an Indian prince and friend of William to Richard Jones, Williams father and Eleanor, Williams prospective fiancé. Eleanor is a beautiful and quite young girl who is deeply in love with William, unfortunately she is essentially being used by her father in order to make a contract through marriage between the Campbell family and another, wealthy family. I felt that Eleanor lacked some characterisation in the early part of the series, primarily because the focus was firmly on Emma and her relationship with William.

I do like the contrast between the ‘high society’ that William inhabits and works in, and the society that Emma is part of. This is highlighted through Williams inability to understand why Emma in unwilling to accept the gifts he wishes to give her. He wants to throw gifts at her, signs of his affection, however everything he looks at, from new glasses to a beautiful parasol are all phenomenally expensive. For Emma, these gifts are too expensive and too gaudy for someone of her status, and feels that they would look out of place. Her expression of sheet joy and love at being given a simple lace handkerchief – something Emma says she has always dreamed of owning – while making William happy also seems to puzzle him. This is a clear example of how different their viewpoints on the world really are; William is capable of buying practically anything in a sense, while Emma dreams of such gifts, but is unwilling to accept something she sees as too expensive for a mere maid to own.

shot0042 What is so fascinating about Emma is that she is both beautiful and incredibly smart. Her employer, Kelly Stowner – William’s old governess – saved her from a life of prostitution or worse and taught her to read and write, and she is a very refined character. Her ability to read and understand other languages such as French along with her highly refined manners give her the bearing of a more refined lady rather than a maid. This is further emphasised by how easily she was able to fit in and walk around a high-class engagement party later on in the series simply by dressing up as a lady of high status. There was a significant amount of self-education in Victorian England, and to be a maid you needed to be educated with the ability to read and write, along with a more refined manner. Kelly Stowner educating Emma was not all that uncommon either, with the enlightened middle classes educating their servants to a far greater degree than you may expect. It is however the level of Emma’s education and knowledge, coupled with her manner and overall bearing that is of importance to the story. For all intents and purposes, Emma is a highly educated lady, from a middle-class, or perhaps a high status household. It is this that makes her such a fascinating character, as she is almost entirely out of place as a maid, even when she clearly is one. Something that is played upon when Emma’s new boss in the second series dresses her up as a refined lady to accompany a good friend of hers to a engagement party. Emma’s beauty and refined manner is such that she immediately draws everyone’s attention, with people wondering who this mysterious beauty really is.

What I find most fascinating about the series is its relatively accurate – although not complete – use of class boundaries within Victorian England that arguably still exist in some respects today. William is the eldest son of the ‘House of Jones’ a very wealthy, upwardly mobile middle class merchant family who are attempting to rise into the gentry. There is immense pressure on him to marry into the nobility, thus cementing his families’ position in society, along with continuing the family business and making it prosper. The pressures on him are so immense, and upper-class society is so tightly-nit that when he falls in love with Emma, he puts everything in jeopardy. His father is very conscious that while the Jones household are incredibly wealthy, it is ‘new money’, earned through profitable trade, rather than ‘old money’ that is inherited. This means that while the Jones Household ahs significant financial clout, they lack the political and social connections of the gentry, and so William’s love for Emma is incredibly dangerous to their place within society. She truly loves William, but much like him finds it difficult to move against her class and social thinking, often believing that William may be leading her on, or that everything is just a simple dream. 

At this time in British history, like several other countries such as Japan, many of the older established families with titles, land and a solid place in society were actually very poor. In Eikoku Koi Monogatari Emma we see the Viscount Campbell attempting to marry his daughter Eleanor off to the Jones family as Williams fiancé. The Jones Household have the wealth, while the Campbell’s have the prestige, the status, the titles, yet he shows utter disdain for them in every conceivable way. It is fascinating to watch how Viscount Campbell only appears to keep his current lifestyle, and his families’ position in society because of their position in society – a curious paradox, but one that did exist at the time for many families. His attitude towards The Jones’ and in particular Emma when he learns of her is detestable, telling William that having a mistress of two is nothing to worry about as long as he at least produces an heir.

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Women in Victorian Society, while being quite powerful in many respects, were also often stuck with their particular roles that of being married off to influential families in order to create strong links thus increasing the wealth and status of both. Emma has to contend with this sort of society, while being a ‘mere’ maid, a servant who is essentially invisible. This element is played upon in the series, often with the majority of the action and dialogue taking place between servants, rather than the masters of the house. In the second arc for example, when Emma moves to the country and takes up a position as a maid, the majority of the dialogue is within the servants of the household, with the owners – an aristocratic German family – only appear at key points within the narrative. I feel that perhaps this is used to demonstrate the nature of these different worlds, and while many of the concerns may be similar between the gentry and their servants, there are far more that differ. This is further highlighted by the use of gossip within these different groups. While gossip amongst the servants, particularly the maids are about the ‘hot topics’ such as who has eloped with who, what sort of ridiculous clothes one of the house guests were wearing and so on, this gossip is more light hearted. The gossip of the upper classes however is far more poisonous, with certain threads of gossip potentially leading to your ruin socially, and therefore financially. In a sense the upper classes are portrayed as far nastier than the servants, they are the ones with the money, status and power, and their gossip can make or break a deal, be it financial or marriage. The gossip amongst the servants, while potentially quite damaging as well, is mainly about the little things in life, it is often simple friendly banter.

The Viscount Campbell is the closest thing we have in Emma to a bad guy, or more accurately, a character that is just completely unlikeable. His interactions with the other gentry, and particularly those of lower class are very telling of his attitude, and more importantly help to demonstrate of fragmented and stratified class structures can be. One particular interesting example comes in the form of a particular interaction between Viscount Campbell and Richard Jones – Williams Father – during an engagement party. Jones is very quick to go over and thank the Viscount for accepting the proposed marriage between Eleanor and William, shaking his hand while doing so, a common gesture of courtesy. The shot then moves to the Viscount and his wife walking down a back corridor, the Viscount looks at the gloved hand that Richard Jones shook and throws the glove away in contempt. This specific example shows the Viscounts contempt at anyone who he considered below his status, essentially everyone but the monarchy, he is only accepting the marriage proposal because his family, while having a high status, is actually quite poor. The Jones family, while being immensely rich and highly educated – Both William and his younger brother Arthur went to Eton – and clearly have a certain amount of status, they lack the status of the landed gentry, and are therefore in a sense inferior within this particular society and class system.

Overall these two series are superb, expertly told, wonderfully animated and brilliant characterisations. At its heart Eikoku Koi Monogatari Emma is a classic romance with the trials and tribulations of two people who are deeply in love but have to contend with the idea of class, gender and politics in Victorian England. At the centre of the story is a relationship between two people from entirely different classes and social backgrounds, and while the ending may be idyllic, that does not detract from the wonderfully heart-felt moment of their eventual reunion. The animation style stayed true to that of Mori Kaoru, who draws very beautiful women and backgrounds in particular, both highly detailed, but also sombre when needed. The series is however quite slow and took me a while to fully watch again. Due to the nature of the series, and how there are long sections where very little apparently happens Eikoku Koi Monogatari Emma may not suit those who want a faster paced anime series. For me these silent sections were brilliant and allowed the viewer to have a proper look at the emotional turmoil within the main characters, clearly shown in subtle changes in their facial expressions and actions. It did suffer from a few classic problems with romance anime, and I found myself on more than one occasion exclaiming to the screen – ‘get it over with and confess, you know you love each other!!!’ – however, I was able to deal with it in this case because the story was so well told. Eikoku Koi Monogatari Emma is easily one of my favourite anime series and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a historical series with a beautiful and heartfelt romance at its centre.

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About illogicalzen
An Illogical anime fan in a very Zen-like way.

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