What Michelle Obama and Lizzy Bennet Both Know
Michelle Obama’s story is a romance right out of Austen - full of wonderful opposition, fraught with desire and doubt, and bestowing beautiful complexity.
Today’s Letter is all about a kind of wonderfully unexpected thought. While steeped deep in pandemic-therapy Austen world, a friend dropped on me Michelle Obama’s New York Times best-selling memoir Becoming.
And as I read it, what I couldn’t get out of my head was that Michelle Obama’s storytelling deploys some of our favorite romance tropes. And some of our favorite romance tropes come right out of Austen.
So: Today’s letter - just for the fun of it - is about the things that our favorite Austen heroine Elizabeth Bennet shares with our illustrious former first lady of the United States. I think the substance of the parallels will surprise you. Stick with me here!
Obama’s biography is an important book. It’s history. It’s political analysis. It’s all of that, and more than a book about the First Couple’s relationship.
Yet, it also read as romance.
You can count the parade of tropes: friends-to-lovers; opposites attract; from hate-to-love; tortured hero; Alpha hero; forbidden love; fish out of water; and of course even though Michelle Obama is one of our culture’s examples of a strong woman, you also in this story can find your classic rags-to-riches trope - the naive, poor but smart and resourceful girl who gets catapulted to wealth and power through love and marriage. That’s always fun.
And just like Jane Austen, Michelle Obama does much more with her story, of course, than just give us the Marriage Plot.
Just like our lively Elizabeth Bennet, Obama forsakes the frivolous and fashionable elements of romance - sentimental language, false affection, a clamor for wealth and status - and she throws all that over for a man she encounters as complex, real, and challenging - and in doing so she finds authentic feeling, and equally partnership, friendship in life and in marriage, and love.
Am I convincing you yet?!
And there’s more - she also finds an abundance of power, wealth, and status that she would have found laughingly unimaginable if you’d told the high school Michelle about her “fairy-tale” ending.
But most importantly, as in Jane Austen, our heroine of this story finds herself - and this self-discovery is navigated through obstacles like societal pressures, oppositional personalities, and self-delusions that finally give way to personal evolution and a promise of personal fulfillment, hard won.
Pretty amazing, right? Or: Are you still unconvinced?
As Michelle Obama, who is a lawyer by training, might say, let’s break this argument down:
The Meet Cute and More
For Michelle Obama, simply writing her life is momentous - she is conscious that her personal story has been elevated to global, timeless importance. And like a young Queen Victoria, or Elizabeth version I or II, or Eleanor Roosevelt, by simply writing her life she is writing history. She is central to history, and so the best thing she can do is relay her personal experience as a girl and then a woman and an American and a person of color and a wife and mother and as a human within this history.
So what we get is a very human experience - and as it happens, historians will tell you, it’s the everyday personal histories that are in fact the most valuable after all.
But let’s get to the romance.
While we know that the man Michelle Obama marries is about as Alpha Male as it gets (never mind that a young Barack sees himself as a Community Organizer, he will go on to become the most powerful man in the free world), Michelle’s story upends any expectations we may have about her being swoony over their first meeting.
When they meet, she is a very young, very highly-paid antitrust attorney working in a Chicago high-rise. By this point in the story we know that the high school Michelle has grown up in a South Side Chicago neighborhood with extremely hard-working parents. Her father, suffering increasingly from Parkinson’s, played jazz records and was always present in their small house, and never missed a day of work as a union man maintaining boilers for the city.
And Michelle has spent hours each week on a city bus commuting to one of the most impressive, and free, high schools in the city, looking up at these very high rises, her face pressed to the bus window and dreaming.
But now, this 25-year-old corporate lawyer, Harvard-and-Princeton-educated, Saab-driving Michelle Robinson is beginning to wonder whether she’s actually happy doing what she has worked on overdrive her entire life to do.
Soon, we know she will meet Barack Obama. And he will be one of the first people in her life to cause her to ask herself what actually makes her happy. She’ll ditch the corporate job for half the pay (incessantly worried about student loans) to work for the city and for nonprofits and find her flow.
But for now, in a quiet office at Chicago’s Sidley & Austin firm, Michelle Robinson is asked to mentor incoming law students. In one of my favorite passages from the book, where she goes into the second-person point of view (not easy to do in memoir writing), she reflects on how she’s managed to transform her life and succeed, and how she’s not sure it’s exactly what she wants.
A piece of paper crosses her desk, with a request - will she mentor a law student?
She writes, “Of course you will. You have yet to understand the altering force of a simple yes. You don’t know that when a memo arrives to confirm the assignment, some deep and urgent fault line in your life has begun to tremble, that some hold is already starting to slip. Next to your name is another name, that of some hotshot law student who’s busy climbing his own ladder. Like you, he’s black and from Harvard. Other than that, you know nothing - just the name, and it’s an odd one.”
OK, now read that and tell me - “some deep and urgent fault line in your life has begun to tremble” - I’m sorry, readers, but Michelle Obama knows how to write, and she knows how to write romance.
They begin, as mentee and mentor. They begin, as friends. They begin, as opposites attracting.
But like Eliza Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, Michelle Obama is skeptical of the Greatness of this hotshot lawyer.
She keeps her head, ladies and gentlemen
Like Eliza Bennet, she has armed herself for life with the ammunition of good judgement and discernment. And she discerns that this Romantic Lead has talent, yes, that he’s immensely popular and impressive, yes, but she also sees that he’s a bit dreamy. He’s a bit messy.
He’ll likely, she observes, never make any money. Still in law school, he picks her up from the airport driving a yellow Datsun that literally has a hole in the floor and instructs her, “don’t look down” as she watches the road whizzing underfoot.
And like Eliza Bennet, she keeps her head. She refuses to be impressed by outward credentials, by that flashy smile, by the brilliant talk.
No Frank Churchill or Willoughby or Wickham is going to get past this heroine; she’s going straight to Knightley or Darcy, if anyone. Even they will have to work for it.
On their first lunch together, Barack Obama lights up a cigarette, and Michelle decides she could never live with him, telling him she’s surprised someone as smart as he is does something like that. He shrugs, and agrees with her.
No Frank Churchill or Willoughby or Wickham is going to get past this heroine; she’s going straight to Knightley or Darcy, if anyone.
But as in Austen, we know how this ends (yes, even in Austen, readers, you know how it ends - the fun is in finding out how we’re going to get there) - and the glimpses of romance sneak up on you.
Just when we’re giving up on this guy, because his family life has been so different than Michelle’s. And there are hints that he’s reluctant to commit to marriage. And they are ruining one of their romantic dinners by arguing like lawyers the point-by-point pros and cons of marriage, and Michelle seems to be on the defensive. So you begin to feel for our girl and you think, I’d get up and walk right out of that restaurant.
But she is suddenly presented with a box that comes with a chocolate dessert, and of course inside it there is a ring.
And what follows is a proposal, and an acceptance, and applause from the other diners. And we are on our way.
For those who haven’t followed the Obamas back story (and if that’s you, where have you been, friend?!), here are a few things to keep in mind:
First, Michelle Obama, famously, did not choose politics. She didn’t, and probably still doesn’t, like politics. (Fish-out-of-water trope, anyone?)
Her dream was to raise a family in a beautiful house in Chicago, not far from where she herself grew up, but with more resources, and to fill that house with close friends, and laughter and love. This was her dream, and when her husband revealed that his dreams were a bit different, albeit much larger in scope, she held to her own values. And she predicted that because her husband had integrity and character, and politics and politicians do not, that he wouldn’t last in that world anyway.
He’d get, as she put it, eaten alive.
Just like the story of Eliza and Darcy, this love story is buoyed up by a back story of misjudgment - or prejudice, if you will - that the reader can see but our heroine, at the time, cannot. It’s also powered by profound personal evolution in our heroine, and by loads of insight into society and culture in ways that challenge our thinking.
Opposites Attract and All That
And all that insight and personal evolving unfolds along a very romantic through-line.
One romantic thread running through this surprising story (some of the facts of which have actually been reported before, notably in Jodi Kantor’s riveting The Obamas) is that Michelle and Barack Obama always find their way back to each other, wherever they are, through long, low-lit, talky dinners. (I’m not making this up - it’s in the book. And it’s kind of wonderful.)
She likes the way he, during these dinners, listens intently, and bursts into laughs at the things she says.
Of course in this story, quiet romantic dinners are about to get harder to come by. Their life is about to change - and this knowledge adds a lot of suspense to how this all unfolds.
And sure enough, once this romance plot hits a Presidential election, we get the full description of the secret service detail, the armored vehicles and military and medical operations deployed everywhere the President goes. This is fascinating reading. (Enter the “forbidden love” trope: lovers are barred from connecting with each other by outside forces.)
So it’s astonishing and wonderful when, only a few months after the Obamas are in the White House, the President arranges to fly his wife - for one of the sacred Friday Date Nights - to New York City for dinner and a Broadway show.
The only trouble with this plan is that anything they do now requires a military operation - streets are closed down, theater-goers and restaurant-goers are searched by the secret service. And our couple are forced to realize they have been naive and perhaps in denial about the restrictions on their private life in this public role. (Well, she has - I doubt whether President Obama is as unprepared.)
She realizes this favorite part of their relationship - coming together for long, romantic dinners in restaurants - is gone.
Enter the defining crisis. Just when the negativity sets in though, Michelle Obama also realizes that in all the craziness that has become her life, they can at least find each other, and get lost in an intimate moment or two, and that’s the important thing for her.
And, to echo the proposal scene, when they finish with their Secret-Service-monitored dinner off Washington Square and are finally making their exit, the other restaurant-goers, despite the inconveniences, applaud them.
And so though this story is a history - a historic woman and her historic husband and a historic defining moment in the world - this story is also about love and family, and the little things that make up our lives.
Because that is what’s important to Michelle Obama. And as historians themselves will tell you, it’s also what’s important to history.
And really, it’s what’s important to most of us.
And so though this story is about a history - a historic woman and her historic husband and a historic defining moment in the world - this story is also about love and family, and the little things that make up our lives.
Jane Austen created the character of Darcy, universally known for his 10,000 pounds a year and traveling with a stylish, treacherous entourage, to show us that even the wealthy and powerful among us have to contend with the cruelty, banality and stupidity of everyday society - and that real connection and love is the way to transcend those surroundings.
And Michelle Obama, like someone right out of Austen, has girded herself with wit, integrity, and character. So when in this story the assaults come (in her case, not from Society but from Politics), she finds a way back to herself.
Even romantic dinners with the most powerful man in the world don’t provide the confidence she needs. She finds it in herself, and by looking around her for human connection and a way to do good.
Emma Woodhouse and Eliza Bennet have a master conductor composing their lives - and that conductor is of course Jane Austen, who challenges her Regency readers with nuance - with a complicated mixture of strength, wit, vulnerability, kindness and integrity in her young women, and then dares you to differ.
Michelle Obama, being a real girl, does not have an author orchestrating her life. She is writing her own story. As are we all - and our real lives, and also Jane Austen’s real life, contain underpinnings of doubt and devastation and endurance.
And we know how this story, at least this edition of it, ends: Dear Reader, she marries him. (You saw that coming, I know.)
And as Austen always liked to show - when it's done right, the courtship and the romance is just the beginning. Austen was always writing what she never managed to find for herself: Love, hard won through equal intelligence, combative character, authentic feeling, and ultimately friendship.
That’s why Michelle Obama’s story is a romance right out of Austen, full of wonderful opposition, fraught with desire and doubt, and bestowing beautiful complexity.
Friends, have I convinced you?
Have you read Becoming? Let me know your thoughts on the book, and on this comparing and conflating of Lizzy Bennet’s and Michelle Obama’s stories across time, continents and all the other boundaries.
Also, share with us - what romantic tropes are present in your own story? We’d love to hear it! You can comment below and let us know! You can also email me at AustenConnection@gmail.com, or connect at @AustenConnect on Twitter, and austenconnection on Instagram.
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Stay in touch, friends - and have a wonderful weekend, full of summer fun and romance,
Your very best,
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