Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about J K Rowling is how ordinary her background is. In 2008 she was ranked the UK’s 12th richest woman with a personal fortune estimated at £560 million / $780 million, yet it is difficult to imagine a childhood more ordinary, writes The Best You.
When Pete Rowling and Anne Volant were 18 years old, they met at King’s Cross Station, London. The year was 1964 and they snuggled up under a greatcoat as they headed north to their naval posting in Scotland.
Their relationship blossomed and when Anne fell pregnant they married in haste. Joanne Rowling was born on July 31st 1965, to young parents who had by then left the armed forces and moved from North London to Yate, a new town ten miles north-west of Bristol, to realise their dream of a semi-rural life. From here, they moved to a three-bedroomed home in nearby Winterbourne a few years later, where Joanne was soon joined by her sister Dianne.
Their parents, were no doubt great role models. Anne was witty, funny and spontaneous, with an enquiring mind and loved books. Joanne had her first book read to her by her father when she was recovering from measles. It was, she recalls, The Wind In The Willows. At the age of six, inspired by Richard Scarry’s stories, she wrote her very first story about a bumblebee called Miss Bee. Perhaps the story stayed with her. The name of one her characters in the Potter books is called Dumbledore – an Old English word for “bumblebee”.
Life was good, with close neighbours who supported each other over the years, and Joanne’s fifth birthday came and went, marked by a wonderful spread of jelly and ice cream.
A few weeks later when she came home after her first day at school, she believed that was her schooling over. After all, she had “been to school”. So now what? The young Joanne was surprised to find the next day that she had to go again!
Rowling was a bright pupil in her early years. She was great at English but wasn’t great at sports and other physically-based lessons. She progressed with a change of school at the age of nine when her parents moved again to Tutshill, overlooking the picturesque Wye Valley.
Everything was quite normal. She joined the Brownies with her sister and grew up surrounded by a stunning English landscape in a rural school that put on country dancing displays at the end of the summer term. The countryside was filled with folk tales filled with magic and superstition and Rowling absorbed all of this as she grew up. But there was nothing to hint at what was to come in her life.
At school, Rowling admits that she was very much like the school swot in her books, Hermione Grainger. “I always felt I had to achieve, my hand always had to be the first to go up, I always had to be right,” she says of herself.
At school, such behaviour didn’t make her popular. As she got older she was on the receiving end of bullying at Wyedean School. Nevertheless, she was popular enough to be voted head girl in her final year.
It is then that things began to change in Joanne, a sensitive young woman now in her teens. Her mother became ill with multiple sclerosis, and she was not selected to go to Oxbridge, opting instead to study French and Classics at Exeter University, a safe, cosy backwater with a reputation as a refuge for Sloane Rangers, the wealthy children of the London elite.
Here, Joanne seemed to lose her way. One of her tutors commented that “She had a problem settling down here”, another that she was not as gifted as others in languages.
At the end of her four years of learning (she and her classmates took an extra year studying and working in France ), Joanne was tipped out into the world of work. She moved with her boyfriend to Manchester, the start of what she called “a year of misery”.
It did have one profoundly positive outcome. While travelling on the train between London and Manchester, she gazed dreamily out of the window and thought of a train taking a boy wizard to a boarding school for wizards. As she tells it:
“All of a sudden, the idea for Harry just appeared in my mind’s eye. I can’t tell you why or what triggered it. But I saw the idea of Harry and the wizard school very plainly… I have never been so excited by an idea.”
With no pen or paper on her, she took time visualising the story and later put down some notes about her hero.
What is interesting about Rowling’s outlook on life back then was its level of pessimism. She took one of her mottos, “Life is suffering”, from Buddhism. Yet little so far had suggested this to be true. Now, however, things were to take a turn for the worse.
As her relationship with her boyfriend deteriorated, and on New Year’s Eve 1990 she was woken by a call at 7.30am from her father, telling her that her mother had died. A few months later, the few keepsakes she had of her mother were stolen from her Manchester flat. It was the last straw for Joanne.
She determined to start a new life, applying for work as an English teacher in Portugal. Once there, she threw herself into her work and the social life, drinking at Swing a local club, and at the Meia Cava, where she met an intelligent handsome journalist called Jorge Arantes.
She commenced a whirlwind romance with Jorge and became pregnant, moving into Jorge’s mother’s home, a small two-bedroomed flat in Porto. Then, in the summer of 1992, she miscarried. In August of that year, Jorge proposed.
Their relationship was unstable. Both were jealous, with Jorge becoming increasingly so. This combined with Joanne’s independent mindedness led to stand-up rows in which neighbours thought he would kill her. A photograph of Joanne on their wedding day shows her already looking uneasy and unsure.
It wasn’t long before the couple had a child, Jessica. It was also not long before Joanne told Jorge that she didn’t love him. His response was to throw her out there and then and, in his own words, he “slapped her very hard in the street”.
Joanne’s response was simple. She went back to the house the next day and took the baby. Then she left Portugal as soon as she could, returning home to Britain in October 1993 to face a life on benefits in Scotland, where her sister Dianne now lived.
This was the start of her darkest time. Initially living in a mice-infested flat in Leith, Edinburgh, she summed up the courage to borrow money from a friend to get out to another flat that was a little better.
She fell into depression, struggling with her sense of herself as a failure, and ashamed of having to live on State handouts.
But what is fascinating about Rowling is her ability to transform these negatives into positives. The death of her mother saw her include in the Harry Potter story the idea of The Mirror of Erised, which allowed Harry to stare at the images of his dead parents. Her depression she turned into the wraith-like Dementors that affect Harry so badly in the books.
At the same time, Jorge arrived in Edinburgh. Rowling had enough of her wits about her to have an interdict placed against him, preventing this violent husband from coming near her. He was forced to return to Portugal without seeing her.
During this time, she took to writing whilst Jessica slept in Nicolson’s, her sister’s café. She worked on the manuscript while weathering the dark times, determined to keep writing.
In the following summer of 1994, Joanne started to turn a corner. She took a small part-time secretarial job, though she felt trapped by the benefit rules, which allowed her to earn £15 a week on top of the £69 she received from the State. Any more and her benefits were reduced. But she had begun to find a purpose and a direction.
In 1995, she managed to come off of benefits for good to become a full-time student. She continued to write, but she was now determined to be a teacher. On 26 June her divorce was finalised – symbolic of a fresh start.
She could have gone on to be a talented teacher, but life changed for Joanne when her manuscript was accepted for representation by the Christopher Little Agency. He got her to change her nom de plume from Joanne Rowling to J K Rowling, so boys wouldn’t be put off by reading a woman writer. They sold UK rights to her book for £1,500 in 1996 to Bloomsbury. To Rowling it seemed like a fortune, though she was told in no uncertain terms by her agent that there was no money in children’s books.
Then something extraordinary happened. The same week the UK first edition of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone was published, the US rights sold for $100,000 at auction.
It was a marketing gift. The press loved the story of the young woman writer who had lived in poverty landing a huge contract. The J K Rowling phenomenon took off. The first US print run was 50,000 copies.
Little more needs to be said of the success of J K Rowling’s books, but some figures put her achievement into perspective. As a global brand, Harry Potter is estimated to be worth US $15 billion, while the last four books in the series consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history. Her work has been credited with reversing the trend away from books to computers among children, and they have been translated as a whole or in part into 65 languages.
Rowling herself appears to have found happiness in her life, especially with her marriage to Dr Neil Michael Murray. Photos of her in her younger days depict a watchful woman who never smiles with her eyes. Nowadays photos reveal a woman far more comfortable with herself. She still enjoys the company of children more than adults, and was reported to have been shaking at the knees when she received her honorary degree from Exeter University in 2001.
One of the hallmarks of Rowling is her unwillingness to compromise her vision. She stuck to her writing when life seemed hopeless, and she retained control over the scripts when the film rights were negotiated, reportedly clashing with Stephen Spielberg, which is why he didn’t come in as director on the first film in the series.
She even turned down an invitation from the Queen to receive an OBE because her daughter was, she said “ill”. In fact, Jessica was in a school play and Joanne refused to miss it, even for Her Majesty.
With the end of the Harry Potter stories, Rowling has gone on to write two adult titles, The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling. The latter, a detective novel, was published under a pseudonym to test how her books would be judged. It received critical acclaim, with some marvelling at the assuredness of the writing.
Not a natural celebrity, J K Rowling is an extremely private individual. And though her beginnings are not remarkable, her story, as well as her stories, clearly is. They are the inspiration for millions across the world, and there can be no doubt that her work has put magic into the lives of children of every age.