Hello to you again, shimpy! What a terrific observation. As you spell it out so well, it really does seem true that authors in the 19th, 20th and now 21st century take a terrible glee (or savage sorrow) in punishing their female characters for the circumstances in which their authors placed them. The circumstances to which they were "born" -- the need to marry -- not circumstances they then "created themselves." Male or female, authors find it easy to be cruel to female characters who aim for the one goal offered them by their society.
The key seems to if the young woman in question is seen to be too nakedly intent on the goal, precisely because she begins at a disadvantage. Fiction's "other sisters", be they called Bennet or O'Hara or Crawley. Along with the TV and movie trope of the leading lady's best friend, or the "working gal" of the last century. She is available for ridicule, self-deprecation that may be funny but somehow not charming, and extreme disappointment that is often enough played for comedy.
Does this cruelty spring from guilt on the author's part? Guilt, along with the desire of the author to placate the status quo, and his or her privileged but precarious place as an artist within it? Guilt -- expressed as a sort of nervous titter -- that for most of history, half the human race began life with exactly one possible desirable destiny...and among those, many were born with their hopes critically foreshortened? Is there also even some unacknowledged anger, along with the titter, that most of these less advantaged women still wangled their way to a husband?
I brought this over and started a thread because I find the gender issues on this show, and others like Mad Men, fascinating. I think that there is an unescapable tension between the actual cultural expectations of the period, and our own cultural expectations, such that we tend to import modern reactions into period pieces. Case in point, Sybil vs. Edith. To me, Edith is much more authentic. A woman of this period wanting her own home, perhaps children, and a career ("a position") had to marry -- this was the only way to avoid the unsatisfying life of a spinster. And she didn't just have to marry, she had to marry well -- she had to find a man who could give her the position, or in effect "employ" her to run his estate, in order to have the best chance at power, money, and influence, all very modern-sounding goals. Yet because of our modern, post-sufferage, post-women's movement viewpoint, we tend to bristle at these characters. We admire the pluck of a Sybil who would throw it all away on marrying the chauffeur, when realistically this would mean that her chances for independence, power, and control of a certain type in her life would be wildly curtailed. Yet I bet, if polled, that the writers of the show would more likely consider themselves a Sybil than an Edith.
Anyway, here's the forum for discussing gender issues in the show!