Are Jane Austen’s Emma and Persuasion still relevant now?
‘Austen’s work has a real modern grasp of human psychology’
Sophie Sherratt | 3 December 2017

Emma is a coming of age Jane Austen novel, following the story of Emma Woodhouse, who makes a hobby out of match-making but cannot see the dangers of interfering in others’ lives. Persuasion is a simple novel and love story at first glance, yet woven throughout the fabric of her writing is elegance and wit.

Austen’s writing creates such exciting, relatable and three-dimensional images of the characters in the reader's head, especially with Emma and Harriet who are complete opposites, thus creating a perfect balance. However, my favourite character is definitely Mr. Knightley; his fearlessness to be honest and frank with Emma is to be admired and he is constantly pushing boundaries by putting Emma in her place. He always succeeds in warning her of her potential social improprieties and is one of the main moderating influences to her impetuous personality, making him a lovable and courageous character.The protagonist of Persuasion, Anne Elliot, is shown as noble and humble, and she never pities herself, making her a favourite character of mine. One of my favourite elements of the book is Anne’s inner monologues which displayed her dealing with her emotions and perhaps falling in love again, highlighting the importance of second chances and missed opportunities in the novel and in present day society.

At the beginning the novel, I disliked Emma as she was extremely egotistic, selfish and did not think much about the feelings of her peers. However, she did have several redeeming qualities; the love and patience she had for her father and that she always meant well, even if she did not show it in the best way! Emma’s journey is fascinating because she begins to mature and become slightly more understanding of others by the end of the novel. The process of maturing is a never-ending journey which is portrayed so well throughout the novel and adds a sense of timelessness to Emma.

Differing from Emma, is Anne’s love interest in Persuasion, Fredrick Wentworth, who is good-hearted and passionate. Towards the end of the novel, Wentworth writes a letter which truly underlines Austen’s way with words and until that point there is so much unsaid, which makes the letter all the more powerful and shows his emotions finally coming through. This parallels that many people bury their feelings and speak or act differently because they let their emotions pull them in a different direction.

Austen’s work has a real modern grasp of human psychology, especially since Persuasion is not only a love story, but also a comic satire of the upper classes, showing that the obsession with class and money most people had was not everything; affection will always be superior to rank. The character development also gives that aspect of human emotion and realism to novel due to the understandable changes the characters endure throughout the novel which reflects everyday life; we are constantly changing. This shows that Persuasion is still relevant today in that life is dynamic and fascinating just like reality. Similarly, in Emma there is  huge character development in not only Emma but also Harriet Smith, a less key character, who we watch become emotionally bruised by rejection due to Emma’s attempts to pair her with Mr. Elton, resulting in the realisation she can no longer let herself be swayed by her friend’s advice and needs to start to make independent decisions. Harriet beginning to comprehend that she needs to become more autonomous is a huge part of growing up, and appeals to a modern audience, portraying that you cannot always rely on others to make decisions for you.

In my opinion, Emma presents an intriguing perception of growing up in the nineteenth century which does differ from growing up in the present day. Having said this, the themes of maturing, finding love and developing autonomy are significant to the novel’s plot and are timeless and thus still relevant to today’s generation. Persuasion is one of Austen’s most overlooked works, and the delicate and subtle novel provokes the ongoing discussion of persuasion as a tool. The idea itself is powerful but is not shown in the novel as right or wrong; there are examples of it being used poorly, as manipulation with a bad intent, and good-naturedly, as friendly concern with a moral objective. So, we must ask ourselves, what can we do to find the balance between two extremes, believing everything that people tell us or ignoring it altogether? How do we make up our minds when different individuals are trying to persuade us here or there? Persuasion shows that these questions are still relevant today, and all we can do is keep asking them.


Original Image by Leili Farsian and Lizzie Debonnaire 

James Routledge 2016