Take that touching scene between Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth after Mr. Darcy has asked for her hand. Many readers cite it as a favorite, and it ends tenderly enough, with Mr. Bennet listening in a Defoeian way to his daughter’s reasons for marrying Darcy and concluding that he “could not have parted with [her]…to anyone less worthy.” But he begins the scene with a profound display of his disengagement with his daughters’ courtships or marriages. He has no idea that Darcy wooed Elizabeth by hushing up the family’s shame when its youngest daughter, Lydia, ran off with a man she had no intention of marrying (before being strong-armed into doing so).
It’s also unclear whether the ineffectual Mr. Bennet would have done anything to discourage the match between Elizabeth and Darcy even if he had concluded it to be a mistake. “I have given him my consent,” he says, in resignation. “He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse any thing, of which he condescended to ask.” When he next reminds Elizabeth how unhappy his own marriage has been, it’s meant to be read as yet one more failure to pile on the Bennets. (Earlier in the novel, Mr. Bennet did feel comfortable enough backing Elizabeth up when it came to her absolute resolve not to marry Mr. Collins—apparently with his own failed marriage in mind—but he appears too afraid of Darcy to offer anything in the way of real resistance.)
Elizabeth’s marriage might turn out fine despite her lack of loving guidance and a model to follow, but another Austen novel uses similar circumstances to suggest that this could just as easily go the other way. About halfway through Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram takes some time out from oppressing the people enslaved on his Caribbean plantations to ask his eldest daughter whether she really wants to marry her foppish suitor, Mr. Rushworth. Although Maria and Rushworth have their faults, the real villain of the scene is Sir Thomas, who has not, in Defoe’s terms, set himself up well enough to rubber-stamp his children’s choices. Absent for most of their lives and married to a woman who spends most of her days napping on a settee, he has neither guidance nor experience to offer.
Belatedly, he counsels his daughter against the idiotic Rushworth. Maria ends up marrying him anyway, and then leaving him for the rakish Henry Crawford, but there is no Mr. Darcy to save the day in her case. She loses her fortune, her status, and, eventually, Crawford himself, after which she is forced to live with a widowed aunt: total bankruptcy in a game of Austen Monopoly.
In other words, Austen’s critique of the institution of marriage as it was becoming defined in her own time was that it failed at the very thing that society wanted it to do. If you are a woman in an Austen novel, your chances of having a good marriage are almost completely uncorrelated with the strength of your parents’ marriage. Nor does Austen place much hope in generational progress. The elders of her novels would have been among the first generation to benefit from the new doctrines of companionate marriage and their supposedly positive social effects when it came to raising children. Yet they prove completely unable to counsel their children to make better choices than they themselves made.