Lady Elliot had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable; whose judgement and conduct, if they might be pardoned the youthful infatuation which made her Lady Elliot, had never required indulgence afterwards.--She had humoured, or softened, or concealed his failings, and promoted his real respectability for seventeen years; and though not the very happiest being in the world herself, had found enough in her duties, her friends, and her children, to attach her to life, and make it no matter of indifference to her when she was called on to quit them. (1.7)
The novel presents several different versions of what a wife can be -- the Lady Elliot version is (to borrow from Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own) a mirror who reflects her husband at twice his actual size. This passage also suggests the amount of sheer labor that goes into creating that effect – and it's a job with no vacation time.
Always to be presented with the date of her [Elizabeth's] own birth and see no marriage follow but that of a youngest sister, made the book an evil; and more than once, when her father had left it open on the table near her, had she closed it, with averted eyes, and pushed it away. (1.13)
Elizabeth buys into the social rule that marriage is the goal of a young woman's existence – even though she seems happy enough in her life, except for this expectation that she get married.
He was, at that time, a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit, and brilliancy; and Anne an extremely pretty girl, with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling. Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly anybody to love; but the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail. They were gradually acquainted, and when acquainted, rapidly and deeply in love. It would be difficult to say which had seen highest perfection in the other, or which had been the happiest: she, in receiving his declarations and proposals, or he in having them accepted. (4.1)
While the novel may ultimately be a romance, it doesn't shy away from cynical views of love: just like Louisa and Captain Benwick, a major factor in Anne and Wentworth's great love affair is that they're available, bored, and living in the same area. Of course, once they've fallen in love, they never meet anyone else to compare, but that first fall seems founded on shaky ground – and yet, the novel suggests, all romance works that way.
Mrs Musgrove and Mrs Hayter were sisters. They had each had money, but their marriages had made a material difference in their degree of consequence. Mr Hayter had some property of his own, but it was insignificant compared with Mr Musgrove's; and while the Musgroves were in the first class of society in the country, the young Hayters would, from their parents' inferior, retired, and unpolished way of living, and their own defective education, have been hardly in any class at all, but for their connexion with Uppercross, this eldest son of course excepted, who had chosen to be a scholar and a gentleman, and who was very superior in cultivation and manners to all the rest. (9.5)
Marriage and class interact in complicated ways here, and it looks like it's different for men and women – women marry into their husband's class status, but a man doesn't change class because of his wife. Do the marriages in the younger generation follow the same pattern as their parents?
But by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the Cottage. (10.48)
This doesn't sound all that different from the description of Lady Elliot's marriage to Sir Walter at the beginning of the book, but Mrs. Croft seems much more content than Lady Elliot.
Anne saw the misery of such feelings. The husband [of Mrs. Smith] had not been what he ought, and the wife had been led among that part of mankind which made her think worse of the world than she hoped it deserved. (17.11)
For Mrs. Smith, marriage determines her whole outlook on life because it determines the circles she moves in; perhaps that's more or less true for all of the married characters in the book.
"I am no match-maker, as you well know," said Lady Russell, "being much too well aware of the uncertainty of all human events and calculations. I only mean that if Mr Elliot should some time hence pay his addresses to you, and if you should be disposed to accept him, I think there would be every possibility of your being happy together. A most suitable connection everybody must consider it, but I think it might be a very happy one."
"Mr Elliot is an exceedingly agreeable man, and in many respects I think highly of him," said Anne; "but we should not suit." (17.22-23)
Interesting repetition of "suitable"/"suit" – Lady Russell is thinking of social judgment, while Anne uses the same language to talk about her own personal taste.
Captain Benwick and Louisa Musgrove! The high-spirited, joyous-talking Louisa Musgrove, and the dejected, thinking, feeling, reading, Captain Benwick, seemed each of them everything that would not suit the other. Their minds most dissimilar! Where could have been the attraction? The answer soon presented itself. It had been in situation. They had been thrown together several weeks; they had been living in the same small family party: since Henrietta's coming away, they must have been depending almost entirely on each other, and Louisa, just recovering from illness, had been in an interesting state, and Captain Benwick was not inconsolable. That was a point which Anne had not been able to avoid suspecting before; and instead of drawing the same conclusion as Mary, from the present course of events, they served only to confirm the idea of his having felt some dawning of tenderness toward herself. She did not mean, however, to derive much more from it to gratify her vanity, than Mary might have allowed. She was persuaded that any tolerably pleasing young woman who had listened and seemed to feel for him would have received the same compliment. He had an affectionate heart He must love somebody. (18.23)
Benwick and Louisa fall for each other for basically the same reasons as Anne and Wentworth originally did – they're stuck in a small town with nothing better to do. But while Anne and Wentworth turned out to be very well-matched, few think the same of Benwick and Louisa. Perhaps happiness in marriage really is, as a character in another Jane Austen novel says [Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice], just a matter of chance.
She felt a great deal of good-will towards him. In spite of the mischief of his attentions, she owed him gratitude and regard, perhaps compassion. She could not help thinking much of the extraordinary circumstances attending their acquaintance, of the right which he seemed to have to interest her, by everything in situation, by his own sentiments, by his early prepossession. It was altogether very extraordinary; flattering, but painful. There was much to regret. How she might have felt had there been no Captain Wentworth in the case, was not worth enquiry; for there was a Captain Wentworth; and be the conclusion of the present suspense good or bad, her affection would be his for ever. Their union, she believed, could not divide her more from other men, than their final separation. (21.2)
Anne's thoughts in this passage pit two different versions of "a match made in heaven" against each other – on the one hand is the man suited to her by family and class considerations, as well as his own interest, while on the other is the man suited to her by personality and also by her feelings.
Who can be in doubt of what followed? When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other's ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I believe it to be truth; and if such parties succeed, how should a Captain Wentworth and an Anne Elliot, with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right, and one independent fortune between them, fail of bearing down every opposition? They might in fact, have borne down a great deal more than they met with, for there was little to distress them beyond the want of graciousness and warmth. (24.1)
The narrator steps in to give us the Moral of the Story – that all these complex social structures fall to pieces before a couple in love who have made up their mind. On the one hand this seems to go against the whole trajectory of the novel, which is all about the complex social structures and how they get in the way, but it does link to the idea that figuring out what one really wants is the main roadblock on the path to happiness.