What Jane Austen Thought Marriage Couldn’t Do

She wrote her six novels as the institution was undergoing a tectonic shift—to being less about social and financial networks and more about love.

Hulton Archive / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Spend any amount of time searching for the villainous mastermind behind the marriage plot in Anglophone literature and inevitably Jane Austen’s name comes up. With all six of her novels ending in highly desirable unions for her protagonists, she leaves herself open to several justifiable criticisms: for one, that novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility focus too much on younger women at the expense of making older ones either irrelevant or ridiculous. For another, they don’t leave Austen’s readers much idea about how to conduct themselves once the rice is swept up and the bill for the reception comes in.

On the latter charge, however, Austen deserves at least a measure of exoneration. She does depict many post-happily-ever-afters: It’s just that in most cases, they’re not very happy. She’s already made quick work of the marriage of her beloved heroine Elizabeth Bennet’s parents by the end of the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice. “Mr. Bennet,” she notes, “was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character,” although hers is “less difficult” to grasp: Silly, vain, and jealous of her neighbors, she is mostly interested in throwing her five daughters in the path of rich bachelors, a pursuit that she does not share with her husband.

Miserable married lives in fact abound in Austen, from the badly matched Bennets at one particularly noxious end of the spectrum to the more ordinary, harried type of married parents who seem appallingly familiar to us moderns. For instance, when a young child in Persuasion takes a fall due to some minor parental neglect, his distraught parents spend the better part of a chapter arguing about whose fault it was and then how he should be cared for.

Should it be concluded from this very incomplete litany of imperfect marital partnerships that Austen was slyly slapping down the institution with one hand even while she seemed to be raising it up onto its contemporary pedestal with the other? Do Edward and Elinor Ferrars of Sense and Sensibility go on to spend the rest of their married lives chasing down snotty noses with soiled handkerchiefs and quietly sniping at each other about whose turn it is to put the kids to bed?

The novel is silent on this point, but reading Austen in light of the changes that marriage as an institution was undergoing in the generations before she wrote her novels may provide a clue. Like many a marital problem, this one originates with children, who were becoming the moral focal point of a new idea about what marriage was and wasn’t meant to do.

Although historians and sociologists have challenged the older conventional wisdom that the nuclear family structure itself was an innovation of the European Industrial Revolution, the notion that families should be headed by couples who had chosen each other without much family interference was novel, as was the reason for endorsing that choice: that it was better for the next generation.

Marriages forged a few generations earlier than the late 18th-century ones depicted in Austen’s novels had a clear and ancient goal: the enhancement of existing kin networks and the social and financial advancement of all family members, regardless of the personal opinions of the to-be-weds. It’s possible to see the vestiges of this system in Mrs. Bennet’s crass matchmaking on the sole basis of how many thousands of “pounds per annum” some gentleman has, or in the odious Miss Bingley’s complaints about how the Bennets’ London relatives are “in trade” and therefore cannot possibly bring her family any connections worth having.

But around 1700, the world shifted: Increased prosperity, an ascendant middle and professional class, and somewhat better hygiene in Austen’s England meant that an increasing number of children were surviving to adulthood, which meant both more parental investment in their upbringing and less of a need to pin the family’s financial fate to just one of them. Fortunately, the professions—clerical, military, business, law, and so on—offered up paths to prosperity other than the traditional way of owning large parcels of land, which primogeniture and entailment laws made indivisible.

Professional pathways to wealth (for men) meant that even relatively upper-class and prosperous types began to allow their children some latitude in marriage choice (within reason). As a result, marrying for social position or fortune alone became gauche. Austen’s most successful heroines navigate this space of “within reason” expertly, rejecting suitors who do not please them even if they can give them money or position, before settling on ones that better satisfy both their intellects and their reasonable desire not to descend into poverty. (No carriage drivers, common soldiers, or chimney sweeps need apply.)

The modern companionate marriage was born. And almost as soon as it caught on, a nation that was powering through the Industrial Revolution started mass-producing such partnerships, which necessarily gave the institution of marriage a new moral center: children. The individual happiness of these children came to matter more than it ever had, as more of them survived to be potentially happy adults and more possible ways to material prosperity opened up. Guiding each of them to a happy marriage became one very visible metric of parental skill. This was the genesis of a particular kind of nuclear family—headed by two people who are, or who at least used to be, in love.

The novelist Daniel Defoe, the author of one of Austen’s childhood favorites, Robinson Crusoe, became the prolix defender of this system, and the chief advocate of the modern ideal of the companionate marriage. Because “all that can be called happy in the life of man is summed up in the estate of marriage,” he argued, it was a parent’s particular duty to make sure that children were raised in happy, companionate marriages between intellectual and moral equals, so that they would have a model to follow.

Probably for that reason, appetites grew for parenting manuals, a new and extremely popular genre right before Austen started writing. The arguments of advice-givers such as John Locke (who had no children) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who abandoned five of his to orphanages) was that all good parenting began with a companionate marriage of equals who shared compatible child-rearing philosophies. After young children had been carefully shepherded through all of life’s challenges (if you followed Locke) or abandoned in a Swiss forest to fend for themselves (Rousseau), the main duty of a parent was to provide guidance on marriage choices to their adult offspring. Defoe advised that the parent—“father” is implied—strike a balance between gentleness and discouragement in the case of a very unsuitable choice, but to otherwise take a laissez-faire approach. He also suggests that if a parent has been doing their duty all along, a rubber stamp will be the only implement necessary.

It’s on this subject of parental guidance where Austen’s novels really get dark. It’s not so much that all of the actual married lives that she depicts are miserable—although most of them are, to some degree—but that they nearly all fail at what Defoe and many of his contemporaries would have described as their one job.

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.

What Austen offers—and what her critics often disparage—is a focus on the temperaments of the individuals entering into a partnership, to the exclusion of her own century’s focus on future generations’ partnerships as the reason for why it is formed in the first place. If she’s more interested in the “happily” than the “ever after,” perhaps it’s because—in a time before reliable birth control—she resisted the new child-centered focus of marriage.

She was far less sanguine than her contemporaries—or those of us here in the 21st century, for that matter—about the ability of happy marriages to produce happily married children. After all, her most content and companionate marriage—that of the Crofts, in her final novel, Persuasion—is notably childless. Admiral and Mrs. Croft spend their days helping each other drive around the countryside in a carriage that Austen rather firmly describes as meant for only two.

Since Austen’s time, the demands heaped on the institution of marriage have only grown. Nowadays, the ideal spouse is not just a partner in romance, but in self-actualization and personal growth as well. And passing that idealized kind of relationship along to the next generation continues to drive the conversation about what marriage should be, and what kinds of relationships it should include. It may strike many of her marriage-plot critics as surprising, but if Austen were alive today, she might have been just as dismayed as they are about all that marriage is expected to deliver.