Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1033

Joanne Kathleen Rowling (ROHL-ihng) spent her early years living in various locations near the city of Bristol, where her father, Peter, worked for Rolls-Royce as an engineer, before moving to the village of Tuthill in the Forest of Dean in 1974. She was head girl at Wyedean Comprehensive School before going on to study French and classics at Exeter University. She attended Moray House Teacher Training College in Manchester before working in London as a secretary and as a research assistant for Amnesty International. In 1991 she went to Oporto in Portugal to teach English as a second language; there she married television journalist Jorge Arantes in 1992 but divorced him in 1993, after which she returned to Britain with her daughter, Jessica.{$S[A]Scamander, Newt;Rowling, J. K.}{$S[A]Whisp, Kennilworthy;Rowling, J. K.}

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The story of Rowling’s career has taken on a legendary quality akin to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Fairy-Tale of My Life (1855). She conceived the idea of the Harry Potter books on a train journey from Manchester to London in 1990 and worked on it throughout her Portuguese adventure. When she returned to Britain she settled in Edinburgh, where her younger sister Dianne was a law student. Depressed and caught in a “poverty trap” (because the cost of child care made it uneconomical for her to work), she took long walks through the city to tire out her daughter, then sat in coffee shops writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in longhand. She finished the novel in 1995 and then, while Jessica was in nursery school, worked as a French teacher until the manuscript was accepted for publication in 1997. After that, a grant from the Scottish Arts Council enabled her to buy a computer on which to write Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Having been rejected by the major commercial publishing houses, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was issued by Bloomsbury in June, 1997. It won the Smarties Book Prize Gold Medal and was short-listed for the Guardian Fiction Award and the Carnegie Medal. American rights were auctioned for $105,000, then a record for a children’s book, although it was soon surpassed as the commercial publishers hastened to jump on the bandwagon. After Warner bought the film rights to the first novel in 1999, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban carried its two predecessors aloft to occupy the top three slots in the U.S. best-seller lists. Rowling was able to obtain an unprecedented degree of control over the film, insisting that it remain as true as possible to the book. She was also able to resist editorial pressure to cut Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which ran to the extraordinary length of 636 pages. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, published in 2003, was even longer at 766 pages.

Rowling had always planned that the series would extend to seven volumes, following Harry through his secondary education one school-year at a time. Although she had planned to release the novels at yearly intervals, her dramatic elevation to fame and fortune made it impossible to maintain that schedule. In 2001 she bought Kilchassie House, a nineteenth century mansion in Perthshire; she married an anesthesiologist, Neil Murray, on Boxing Day of the same year. Although she did not publish a Harry Potter novel that year, she did produce two brief items of spinoff for the charity Comic Relief: Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

For a half century before the first Harry Potter book appeared, critics and historians had taken it for granted that the traditional British boarding-school story was dead and buried. Such tales were a peculiarly British invention, without parallel in American or European literature, and it was widely assumed that their success in Britain had been a temporary folly, whose continuation had been rendered impossible by the modernization of the British education system. Although boarding schools still existed, they were considered too marginal to serve as appropriate settings for mass-market fiction. Rowling demonstrated the falsity of this assumption in no uncertain terms, cleverly fusing the British boarding-school story with a new subgenre of fiction pioneered in the United States: the high school horror story.

The notion of modeling the hormonal dramas of adolescents in the imagery of horror films, originated in B-movies like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), had been sophisticated by the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie (1976) and brought to a final pitch of perfection in the 1990’s by the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The boom in children’s horror fiction, precipitated by R. L. Stine and his imitators, cleared the last lingering inhibitions from the world of children’s publishing, creating the opportunity that Rowling seized so triumphantly. She demonstrated the imbecility of the hypothesis that boarding-school fiction had been supported by its naturalistic impostures, proving that it had always been a species of fantastic fiction which only required appropriate re-fantasization to be fabulously rejuvenated.

Like all great superheroes, Harry Potter is a dual personality, existentially defined by the sharp contrast between his publicly manifest and secret identities. Before being accepted into Hogwarts Academy, and in between its terms, he is the despised and abused ward of the revolting Dursley family, but at school he is an apprentice wizard marked (literally) for greatness. Even as a babe-in-arms he withstood a magical attack by Lord Voldemort, with whom he is now engaged in a desperate race against time. While Harry attends to his lessons and tries to bring his magical abilities to perfection, Voldemort is regaining his power and influence, preparing to precipitate a magical Armageddon in the climactic volume of the series. Whatever problems Clark Kent/Superman, Peter Parker/Spiderman, and Buffy Summers/the Slayer may experience as a result of their divided lives, and whatever supervillains they may vanquish in their superheroic guises, they cannot hold a candle to Harry Potter. The measure of Rowling’s achievement is that within the compass of this kind of compensatory fantasy—which is wonderfully appealing to children, especially those who feel deprived even of the limited kinds of power that children can exert over their peers—Harry is not merely unequaled but unsurpassable.

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