Making Peace With Jane Austen’s Marriage Plots

Her work has done more than any other author’s to influence what “happily ever after” means in culture.

Illustration of three women admiring a fourth woman's ring
C. E. Brock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

All six of Jane Austen’s novels end with weddings. On the final page of Northanger Abbey, readers are informed that “Henry and Catherine were married, the bells rang, and everybody smiled.” Sense and Sensibility concludes with a twofer: Elinor and Edward are married “in Barton church early in the autumn,” and Marianne is “placed in a new home” with Colonel Brandon. Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet gets “rid of her two most deserving daughters” on the same day. Mansfield Park ends with Fanny and Edmund married, and their happiness “as secure as earthly happiness can be.” In Emma, the titular character and Mr. Knightley are wed with “no taste for finery or parade,” but with “perfect happiness” in their union. Anne Elliot, “tenderness itself,” is married to Captain Wentworth in the last chapter of Persuasion, with only the prospect of war casting a shadow over her contentment.

The wide-ranging influence of Austen’s marriage plots is hard to quantify. Nor is it entirely her fault. When Carrie marries Mr. Big at the end of Sex and the City, not with a bang but a City Hall whimper, the “happily-ever-after” conclusion is as much a nod to the conventions of fairy tales (the shoe fits) as it is to Austen’s satirical romances. And yet there are few other authors who’ve so reliably concluded stories about women with accounts of their marriages. Austen’s weddings mark a natural endpoint, offering finite resolution (marriage in 19th-century England was almost entirely irreversible) and domestic and financial security for her heroines. They also set a standard for romantic comedies that’s been impossibly pervasive: Women’s stories end, definitively, with marriage.

For me at least, this has long been a source of some irritation. Marriage plots, satisfying as they are, only offer a tiny window into a woman’s life, and they imply that getting married is easily the most significant thing she will ever do. They zero in on the “before” at the expense of the “after.” (Fan fiction alone will testify to the rampant curiosity about the state of Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage, and not just in the bedroom.) They also lead to culture focusing predominantly on younger women. Even in Austen’s work, the scholar Judith Lowder Newton has written, “marriage demands resignation even as it prompts rejoicing, initiates new life while it confirms a flickering suspicion that the best is over.”

Austen’s six novels achieved varying commercial success throughout her life, but their impact on storytelling in Western culture has been profound. Every time a rom-com ends with an engagement, or a wedding, or even a counterintuitive promise to be unmarried to someone for the rest of their life (Four Weddings and a Funeral), their influence feels palpable. Loving Austen unequivocally, then, means coming to terms with the paradox at the heart of her work: No one did more to challenge the conventions and strictures of marriage for women in the 19th century, while simultaneously enshrining it as the ultimate happy ending for her worthy, intelligent, and independent characters.

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Jane Austen was born in 1775, toward the end of the 18th century, a period that saw the forceful emergence of an English middle class. Men who hadn’t inherited land could seek prosperity as businessmen or clergymen, or as officers in the army and navy (Captain Wentworth, in Persuasion, returns a wealthy man from the Napoleonic Wars thanks to money he earned by capturing enemy ships). But the flip side of a shifting economy, as the historian Kirstin Olsen notes, was “the gradual disappearance of respectable work for middle-class women.” Women were barred from becoming lawyers, doctors, politicians, or judges, which left them, Olsen writes, “with not occupations but hobbies: music, drawing, needlework, and artistic or social patronage.”

Austen’s sense of frustration about this enforced and unequal uselessness is detectable even in her earlier works. Sense and Sensibility, which she started working on before 1796, begins with three daughters plunged into poverty when their father dies and their brother inherits the family estate. At the time, the only means women had of bettering themselves was marriage. Austen’s novels follow the structural model of romances and fairy tales, where circumstances and complications keep a couple from their inevitable union. But they also consistently refer to the economic realities of marriage for women, which none of her characters can afford to ignore. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen wryly introduces Mr. Darcy by writing that “he soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance of his having ten thousand a year.”

This tension between naively interpreting marriage as a love match and cynically calculating its potential profits is embodied in Pride and Prejudice by two very different characters. Lydia Bennet pursues men thoughtlessly and wantonly, without regard to their economic situation or their potential as providers. Charlotte Lucas, by contrast, marries Mr. Collins, a buffoon, purely for financial security, horrifying her friend Elizabeth in the process. “Without thinking highly either of men or matrimony,” Austen writes of Charlotte, “marriage had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.”

Elizabeth, by contrast to both Charlotte and Lydia, is Austen’s attempt to reconcile two different imperatives—to prove that marriage can be both a true love match between two compatible people and a means of significant economic improvement for women. Austen, the scholar Karen Newman writes, “exposes the fundamental discrepancy in her society between its avowed ideology of love and its implicit economic motivation.” The very first sentence of Pride and Prejudice is a wink; a statement that single men in possession of good fortunes must be in want of a wife, when all of Austen’s readers know the opposite to be true—single women with no fortune or means to speak of are very much in need of husbands. As Henry Tilney, Catherine’s love interest, states in Northanger Abbey, “Man has the advantage of choice; woman only the power of refusal.”

This reality makes marriage not just an objective but a business that otherwise unoccupied women can devote significant time to. The first third of Pride and Prejudice, Lowder Newton notes, “consists of very little but women talking or thinking or scheming about men.” In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Jennings, an independently wealthy woman whose daughters are married, devotes herself to making matches for other young women in a kind of self-appointed act of community service. In Emma, Emma Woodhouse is a rich young woman who has no need to get married, but she also takes to matchmaking with enthusiastic and misguided gusto, causing chaos with her lack of regard to the realities of social classes.

The reason why Austen, who never married, leads all her characters to the altar in concluding their stories is relatively simple. Narrative conventions in comedy require happy endings. Austen obeyed the rigid strictures of the marriage plot, but she also subversively forced her readers to see the awkward reality of marriage for women. Some critics argue that she doesn’t go far enough in challenging it as an institution: In Pride and Prejudice, Lowder Newton argues, “Elizabeth’s … untraditional power is rewarded not with some different life but with woman’s traditional life, with love and marriage.” Others, like William H. Magee, counter that Austen reworked the marriage plot to suit her own agenda. “By doing so,” he writes, “she made the convention a vital feature of her own art and developed it into a criticism of the life allotted by her society to young women of the times.”

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Two hundred years after her death, Austen’s marriage plots remain very much a part of the cultural framework. “Ever since the days of Jane Austen,” Koa Beck wrote in The Atlantic in 2014, “pop-culture consumers have been drawn to stories about female protagonists who find ‘happily ever after’ in marriage and motherhood.” The thriving genre of wedding movies, rather than exposing the contradictions at the heart of the institution of marriage, mocks the gargantuan business of planning a wedding, exposed in Bride Wars, and 27 Dresses, and The Wedding Planner, and The Wedding Singer. Austen would surely approve.

But she might also question why so many works of popular culture haven’t done more to expand the boundaries of telling stories about women’s lives. Worldwide, the highest-grossing film of 2017 so far is Beauty and the Beast, an adaptation of a fairy tale written to prepare young French girls for arranged marriages. As a novelist, Austen was keenly attuned to culture’s powers of persuasion. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland is almost brought to disaster by all the Gothic novels she reads, which lead her to interpret ordinary events as sensational and supernatural.

For me, making peace with Austen’s marriage plots, and the many, many imitators they sparked, means considering the fact that she overestimated her audience. She used the rituals of romantic comedy to expose what marriage really meant for women who had no other means of economic improvement, hoping that we’d see the injustice of it. She gave her heroines a kind of power and agency that she herself lacked. “When Austen allows Elizabeth to express critical attitudes,” Lowder Newton writes, “to act upon them without penalty, when she endows Elizabeth with the power to alter her lot, Austen is moving against traditional notions of feminine behavior and feminine fate.”

What contemporary culture took from her novels, though, is that stories about complex, intriguing women should end in marriage, however improbably. It’s the moral of The Philadelphia Story, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and While You Were Sleeping, and The Princess Diaries 2. Clueless, an adaptation of Emma, nods to the rule by wrapping up with a wedding fakeout—it isn’t Cher who’s getting married, but her homely teacher Miss Geist. Concluding with a wedding implies that all involved live happily ever after, something even Austen knew was unlikely. Her ending to Mansfield Park, in which the happiness of Fanny and Edmund is “as secure as earthly happiness can be,” includes an ironic tip of the hat to readers who know by experience that earthly happiness is rarely as reliable as storytellers would have it.