Season 1 of Emma: A Victorian Romance is like Neapolitan ice cream—when you only like strawberry. You have to eat the chocolate and vanilla to get to the part you like. I mean, it is all ice cream though, so it’s not exactly torture, but if you’re honest, you only really enjoy a third of it.
TL;DR: the final third of this series makes it all worthwhile, and I’m really looking forward to Season 2. Keep this happy ending in mind if you decide to read the full review, because it’s a bit of a journey to get to this final destination! Ok, here we go…
The first two-thirds of this story of forbidden love between the privileged eldest son of a nouveau riche business family, William Jones, and an orphaned maid with no last name, Emma, is a hot mess. Set in 1890s London, there are enough historical inaccuracies to frustrate any devotee of period drama (hello, misspent youth!), and plotting that, from the word go, continually jumps the shark, or more accurately, the elephant. Because there are elephants. In London. Walking down the street. Ridden by an Indian Prince. Even though two—or possibly three—separate characters comment on how ridiculous a stereotype it would be to think that a visiting Indian Prince would actually ride an elephant. In London. Down the street.
(And later, he drives an automobile—in the house. Down the hallway. With his entire harem of identical expressionless women who don’t require voice actors—because genuine harem here—draped around like so many life-sized hood ornaments. This guy…he’s problematic and he knows it. He embraces it! Seriously, Prince Hakim literally points out that he is performing an exoticized version of his own culture for the colonial masters.)
The biggest instance of shark-jumping though is the mutual insta-love within the first minute, which provides the basis for the entire first season. Master William knocks on the door of a townhouse in Marylebone (a posh, albeit not noble, London neighborhood) to visit his old governess. Suddenly, he is bopped firmly in the face by the energetic swing of the opening front door. Emma the maid is the unsuspecting culprit. The grey cat watches in that detached, bemused way that grey cats have, in what is a fantastic bit of character animation (truly, this cat steals every scene it is in!). It’s love at first blow to the nose.
I must admit that I was as struck by this scene as dear William, but because of the blaring historical inaccuracy rather than the romance of it all. When has a front door of a home ever in the history of front doors in homes opened outward? I can tell you, dear reader: never. Because for a door to open outward like that would leave the hinges exposed and thus easily unscrewed by a wily thief. Plus it being dangerous for the young Masters stood outside on the stoop at the mercy of forceful maids/butlers. But this double door persists in opening outward throughout the entire season, and for that reason, I can’t say that I regret that Emma must eventually part from her Marylebone residence and turn the key in the lock on that front door—the wrong way, by the way (British locks turn toward the door jam)—and shake the London dust from her feet. Good riddance, ye perilous door!
These are just nit-picky details though. They’re like eating vanilla ice cream—I mean, no one can really dislike vanilla; it’s just not a flavor you get super excited about. The thing is though, these details were really quite consuming for me because they filled the gaping hole left by the poor pacing of the central romance.
Emma is a sweet character, but rather plain as far as anime character designs go, and terribly soft-spoken and reluctant to emote. Added to this, we must wait a very long time for a bit of backstory on her. What I’m trying to say is that there really is no clear indicator—visually or in terms of characterization—as to why it is that every single male character—and I do mean every single one, even the postman!—falls in love with her at first sight. I can only presume that it is the maid outfit. Meanwhile, William is a tad shouty and equally inept when it comes to conversation and expressing himself, which means that for a number of episodes we just watch the two of them react to their more active foils, the teasing Mrs. Stowna for Emma, and the provocative Prince Hakim for William.
It’s difficult to invest in this romance since the characters remain so remote from us for so very long. But even more of a stumbling block in my way to being starry eyed for these two was the way in which the social transgression of their romance was treated.
So here we come to what is for me the chocolate in this Neapolitan metaphor—so sorry chocolate fans, but I really don’t care for it in ice cream form! The most challenging aspect of this series was the erratic treatment of the social hierarchies, tensions, and boundaries of Victorian England. This is the stuff period dramas hinge on, yet it is handled with shocking inconsistency here, being almost completely ignored for the first half of the series, before being suddenly brought to the fore to provide the conflict for the love plot once William and Emma’s natural bashfulness has been overcome.
Until halfway in, everyone is acting as if there are no eyebrows to be raised at a wealthy, Eton-educated young man falling in love with a shy maid in Victorian England; as if it’s just cute that two shy people are taking a long time to get together. The seeming insensitivity to social realities is made worse in the Japanese original as the VA for Emma uses a very refined hime-sama voice for a character that comes from a pretty rough background. Emma does not, as one character intimates, speak the Queen’s English.
The English dub does a much better job of hinting at the social divisions between various characters. There’s a good range of accents, including some Irish thrown in the mix among the working class, which is appropriate for the time. The accents can be a little rocky in places, but overall the dub settles into a good groove by the midway point and really is worth listening to, even for a diehard subber like me. (The dub was also a passion project of sorts, financed by a Kickstarter campaign back in 2018—great job everyone!)
The worst offender in terms of historical infractions was Mrs. Kelly Stowna (Stoner?). Everything about this character is wrong, even her name (Kelly’s not a girl’s name til the 1960s). Mrs. Stowna is Emma’s employer, having adopted the girl at age 15 to train her to be a maid, every
Japanese otaku’s homeless girl’s dream. Mrs. Stowna is from a working class background and was widowed two years into an arranged marriage (!!!!), and because she was educated (!!!!!!), she became a governess, and then after 30 years, retired to a townhouse in Marylebone with enough money to hire a maid (!!!!!!!!!). (The degree of unlikelihood of each of these points is indicated by the number of exclamation marks.) She also actively encourages and even pushes Emma and William together, seemingly without any awareness of the impropriety of such a match according to the customs of the day, and effectively sets them both up for heartbreak. Oh, woman-who-shouldn’t-be-named-Kelly, you are a cruel one! Sigh.
But there is a most welcome and wholehearted “but” to all of this. The final third of the series really turns things around and displays a degree of characterization and sensibility to the complexities of social relations in the period that completely redeems the earlier poor pacing, random elephants, and historical peccadilloes. Yes, that’s right, there is strawberry ice cream in this here tub of Neapolitan and plenty of it!
Alongside the glaring historical problems I had with the series, there is nevertheless a wealth of rich detail that is very much historically accurate and very fascinating to boot! The Crystal Palace episode was a delight—and in fact is when the series first started to turn around for me—while details like the tins of Coleman’s powdered mustard and Mudie’s book lending store really bring the period alive. (Although Mr. Mudie was famous for his high morals and was in fact a founding father of what we know as “Victorian morality,” to the point where he once refused to stock a particular book on account of it featuring a passage where a girl poses nude for an artist. So the scene where William and the Prince gawp at the Victorian equivalent of a pinup girl book at Mudie’s would most certainly not have happened.) The backgrounds and settings are evocative, and anyone who has spent some time in London will see a number of favorite spots peeking into William and Emma’s courtship walks.
But the best part in the final couple of episodes is the sudden burst of character development for Emma. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I will just say that we do finally learn more about her background, and it is incredibly poignant and powerful, for both a certain character who learns of it, and for the viewer.
Emma displays more verve and gumption in this one flashback than we’ve seen so far in the entire series, and it’s as if this sequence frees her to act more decisively for the rest of the season, though there is only one episode remaining. The backstory also ties together a delicate little thread that weaves throughout the series in the form of a young flower girl who cannot seem to sell any of her poseys, no matter how prettily she calls out to passersby.
In the final accounting, the result of the romance is much more nuanced and full of pathos than I expected, and filled me with respect for the characters and the mangaka who scripted the original story. The closing scene, with its hints at a new life to come, has left me looking forward to the second season far more than I did to the middle episodes of this first season.
And if Emma’s newfound proactivity is anything to go on, I think the continuing story may even have the potential to become a favorite. What a reversal that would be! Stay tuned for my next review, Season 2 of Emma: A Victorian Romance or What Flavor of Ice Cream is Your Favorite?
Emma A Victorian Romance Season 1 Blu-ray
from: Right Stuf, Inc.
Emma: A Victorian Romance , Season 1 is available on Blu-Ray from RightStuf Anime. A free copy was provided for this review, which I very much appreciate!