as do 21st century literary critics.
Her opening sentence is: "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."
Even if the intent is to be tongue-in-cheek, Chamberlain is assuming that a) romantic novels are pernicious and b) her readers will agree with her on this point.
Admittedly, some avid readers of romance novels make jokes along the same lines: "Mr Darcy," reads the sweatshirt, "giving women unrealistic expectations since 1813."
Austen, Chamberlain goes on to say, "leaves herself open to several justifiable criticisms... [she focuses] too much on younger women at the expense of making older ones either irrelevant or ridiculous." Also, Austen doesn't illustrate what happens after the wedding.
These two criticisms remind me of Caroline Bingley’s remark that balls would be more rational if they featured “conversation instead of dancing." "Much more rational,” her brother agrees, “but it would not be near so much like a ball."
Surely anyone who wants conversation instead of dancing is free to pick up the book of their choice and let the rest of us enjoy some time alone with our favourite Austen heroes? One justification, I suppose, for taking Austen to task is that she is so ubiquitous and influential.
Although Austen is not the inventor of the marriage plot, she did write at a time (as Chamberlain points out) when marriages were no longer arranged by parents and started being love matches. People began to expect more happiness and fulfillment from marriage. (Let me mention in passing that it is nice to see an acknowledgement in a mainstream magazine that capitalism is responsible for freeing women from being chattel.)
Chamberlain criticizes Austen because she didn't “leave [her] readers much idea about how to conduct themselves once the rice is swept up and the bill for the reception comes in.“ She stopped, unrealistically, at the HEA and didn't explain what happens afterward.
Conduct novels were overtly didactic. And most importantly, they weren't funny.
To fault Austen for not writing about happy marriages is to be tone deaf to the comedy. I get the impression that post-modern interpretations of Austen all begin by draining the comedy out. Without the comedic lens, Mr. Bennet is just a lousy husband and father, and Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park is a negligent mother, and That’s Not Funny.
But Austen is comic and her references to happy marriages are comic, too. Austen even laughs at Elizabeth Bennet's sorrow when she changes her mind about Mr. Darcy and laments her lost opportunity. Alas, "no such happy marriage could now teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was." In Emma, After Mr. Elton keeps his wife waiting, she teases him with: "You knew I should not stir till my lord and master appeared.—Here have I been sitting this hour, giving these young ladies a sample of true conjugal obedience."
This is not a bug, it’s a feature. All of the literary criticism in the world will not change the fact that stories about unmarried young women are more compelling than stories about their mothers, and Ill-matched couples are more useful for comedic purposes than happily-married ones.
Austen sensitively depicts a man (Edmund Bertram) who is infatuated with a beautiful, cynical woman (Mary Crawford) and he learns a bitter lesson when he finally sees her for what she is. We see a marriage in which a woman (Fanny Dashwood) dominates her husband, and a marriage in which the husband (General Tilney) oppressed his wife and dominates his children. Are these not valuable object lessons? For Austen is a moralist as well as a comic. She portrays sensible as well as silly older women, too. As Kathryn Sutherland points out, what set Austen apart from her contemporaries was the realism of her novels.
So we find that a 19th century baronet is in perfect accord with a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.
I will close with the following quote from Sense & Sensibility, as evidence that Austen perfectly well understood that the intense felicity of courtship settles down into something else after marriage--and she paid her readers the compliment of supposing they understood it as well:
"[Edmund Ferrars] could do nothing till he were assured of his fate with Miss Dashwood; and by his rapidity in seeking THAT fate, it is to be supposed... in spite of the modesty with which he rated his own deserts, and the politeness with which he talked of his doubts, he did not, upon the whole, expect a very cruel reception. It was his business, however, to say that he DID, and he said it very prettily. What he might say on the subject a twelvemonth after, must be referred to the imagination of husbands and wives."