The Reluctant Heroine
Woke is the revenge of the dullard on the wit. But revenge is also a dish best eaten cold, and in public, for a great sum of money, as JK Rowling proves so triumphantly.
Until she was hated, I never cared for JK Rowling. The idea of anyone over the age of majority who could be reading, say, Lionel Shriver instead reading stories about boy wizards irritated me intensely. When it was announced in 2013 that there were to be *adult* covers for the books (‘modern and vibrant’) to mollycoddle those who might otherwise be extending their literacy, I felt the same incomprehension that I feel when I see photographs of ‘adult babies’ sitting in some outsize playpen, dull eyes staring out above a dummy. And as with adult babies, I must admit an intolerant part of me felt that such people should probably have their voting rights removed if they were not willing to fully embrace the blessed state of being a grown-up.
But who doesn’t love a rags to riches story, especially at a time when social mobility in the UK is actually going backwards - especially in the arts. The musician Cerys Matthews felt so strongly about upper-class domination of the record charts that she decided not to play records by privately-educated artists on her radio some years back; for writers from *ordinary* backgrounds the situation is even more dire. Joanne Kathleen Rowling OBE remains one of the very few aspirational examples at a time when the ambition to write, if not connected through parentage or protected through wealth in British society, is perhaps more frequently thwarted than it was in Dickens day.
‘I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels,’ said Rowling in a 2008 address to Harvard University. ‘However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.’ I remember telling my factory-worker parents that I wanted to be a writer when I was twelve; my mother simply didn’t understand what I meant, and assumed that I wanted to be typist!
They were good people and did eventually buy me a second-hand typewriter, but right up to the time when my name first appeared in print at the age of seventeen, I suffered repeated humiliations as they would enquire encouragingly how ‘the typing’ was going. A similarly miserable teenager, stifled by the low expectations which were projected onto her, Rowling’s first secondary school English teacher remembered her as ‘not exceptional… quite good at English.’ But whatever she might have lacked in natural talents, she would soon accrue in life experiences.
When Rowling was 15, her mother - still only 35 herself - was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She would die of the degenerative disease ten years later, in 1990, by which time Rowling had married and separated from an abusive husband in Portugal and escaped to Edinburgh with her infant daughter - only to be followed by her ex and forced to take out a restraining order. Diagnosed with clinical depression and considering suicide, living on benefits and ‘as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless’ she nevertheless later described her failure as ‘liberating’ because it allowed her to give everything to her writing. It’s here that the rather routine story of an unexceptional provincial girl who grew into a young woman depending on the kindness of the strangers who doled out her welfare payments took on an element of the epic tale.
Anyone familiar with The Hero’s Journey - the sequence popularised by Joseph Campbell in order deconstruct and compare religions - will be struck by how closely Rowling’s progress resembles the archetype. In the his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ - written almost half a century before Rowling achieved success - Campbell wrote ‘A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.’ When I read this. I think not of the rather dull character of the boy wizard - but of the extraordinary journey of Joanne Rowling herself. For when she fled from a violent man in a foreign country to the city of Edinburgh to be close to her sister - her mother now dead - the mild-mannered young mother had a trick up her sleeve. Or rather, three chapters of the first Harry Potter novel in her suitcase.
Rowling completed the book in 1995; after eight rejections from publishers, Bloomsbury offered her a modest advance for Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone. Just one more request was sent to test the heroine; she had survived being a battered wife and a single mother, but she was now advised to disguise her lowly female status as boys would not knowingly read a book by someone called Joanne. It’s not something males grow out of; for the top ten bestselling female authors, readerships are less than a fifth male; the female writer with the greatest male readership is the thriller writer LJ Ross, who might not be so favoured if she called herself Louise. When the Bronte sisters published under the names of the fictional Bell brothers - Currer, Ellis and Acton - back in the nineteenth century, whoever dreamed that sexual apartheid would still rule in the bookshops of the free world more than a century later? Being forced to hide her low-status sex when she was powerless would make the gender-based brouhaha which would happened when Rowling was indestructible even more resonant.
But as it transpired, it wouldn’t have mattered if she’d called herself D. Duck Esq. The eight Harry Potter books alone are thought to have earned her more than £1 billion, with a further £200 million from the films. Her net worth is thought to be £820 million; last year alone she paid £34.8 million in tax, but if that wasn’t enough her level of voluntary giving has been singular, for someone in the creative arts. Though novelists are quick to write off, say, billionaire businessmen for behaving badly, they often leave Donald Trump looking like Malala Yousafzai when it comes to self-promoting narcissism. Think of Martin Amis, who spent £20,000 on new teeth and ran off with his wife’s best friend or Salman Rushdie, who told his fourth wife that she was ‘a bad investment’ when her serious illness prevented sex. Rowling was something else altogether, a selfless philanthropist on a level comparable to that of Bill Gates; due to her exceptional generosity, she managed to go from billionaire to mere multi-millionaire in a few years.
Just as becoming rich suited her, she took to fame easily; an elegant woman with the face of a Modigliani, who unusually for a writer turned out to be something of a clothes-horse. She appeared to be civilised in every way one can be; sometimes a bit too much so, as despite her experiences of struggle and her residence in Edinburgh rather than the English capital, her politics seemed very much those of the London liberal elite. She was for Remaining in all its political forms; for Scotland staying in the United Kingdom, for the United Kingdom remaining in Europe, and basically everything that supported the status quo. Until she became involved in the issue which is currently the most savage yet also the most comical in British cultural life; can a man also be a woman?
In the summer of 2020 this very model of moderation was reborn again as a heroine of free speech and feminism when she was subject to a massive online pitchforking by the Men’s Rights Activists (Frock Division) - those incels in thongs and their treacherous Transmaids who believe that *woman* is a dirty word unless preceded by the nasty-sounding *cis.* I had always considered her humourless, but I was about to be pleasantly surprised when she tweeted, after reading a newspaper article which used the phrase ‘people who menstruate’: ‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’
The resentment of the over-privileged, under-achieving bed-wetters of Woke is equally only to their everyday massacre of the English language, so it was fitting that the fight should start with JKR standing up for her mother tongue. The predictable kerfuffle ensued, but she wasn’t backing down: ‘If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased…the idea that women like me, who’ve been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable in the same way as women—i.e., to male violence—‘hate’ trans people because they think sex is real and has lived consequences—is a nonsense…I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.’
All those years telling impressionable children that magic could triumph over everyday reality may have paid off financially for Rowling - but she had raised a generation of deluded fools who believed that thinking a penis *female* could make it so. Now commenced a social media pile-on of thwarted Harry Potter fans in which a horde of no-marks opined that this self-made super-successful woman should EDUCATE HERSELF simply because she knew the difference between fairytales and facts and they didn’t. Quite a few of them complained that she had 'ruined' their childhood memories - the same generation who mewled that Brexit had ruined their futures. There has been an ongoing campaign to infantilise the British population for quite some time now - ‘Wrap up warm!’ and ‘Stay hydrated!’ the TV weather forecasters invariably chirp - and this was the outcome. An army of foot-stamping, self-obsessed giant toddlers, told by their thick parents how perfect they are since birth, and thus totally lacking the enquiring minds which inspire art and culture. They’ve never heard the word NO but ironically NO is all they contribute to the world.
Woke is a reactionary rather than a revolutionary movement, one of the signs being that those who have historically held power - men, the educated, the wealthy - spent so much time censuring the behaviour of women, the uneducated and the poor in the name of Wokeness. This was now demonstrated as the mediocre young Harry Potter actors turned on the woman who had brought them to public attention and to whose sparkly brain they owed everything they had. That they were from privileged backgrounds (Daniel Radcliffe the privately educated son of a casting agent; will he call his autobiography ‘My Struggle’?) while as an impoverished single mother she once wrote in cafés made the situation surreal. After a period of attempting to placate the geek chorus, Rowling was fully reborn as defiant fun-seeker who responded to the proposed book-burning of her Harry Potter bestsellers with ‘Whenever somebody burns a Potter book the royalties vanish from my bank account. And if the book’s signed, one of my teeth falls out.’
The hashtag #RIPJKRowling may have trended, and such breathtakingly unhinged tweets as ‘She ain’t dead but she killed her own career by hating trans people’ may have abounded, but once more this monstering mob - Violet Elizabeth Bott joins the Stasi - had only a tenuous grasp on reality. In fact, by turning on her, they had helpfully propelled Rowling away from children’s books into the world of adult fiction while they sat their in their padded cells in their super-size nappies wailing about a woman who had already broken free from their clammy grasp and escaped into a new, more suitable career. In 2013 the first of her Cormoran Strike crime novels was published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, followed by four more and Rowling’s announcement that she planned another ten. All bestsellers, they are excellent, as much literary triumphs as page-turning thrillers, bringing to mind Graham Greene and how he wrote ‘entertainments’ as well as ‘novels’ - and how the two eventually became indistinguishable. Utterly defiant by now, the series variously featured a cross-dressing male killer of women - and a character who while pretending to be an anti-Zionist is actually a rabid anti-Semite. Rowling had shaken off the clunking cliched chains of Woke-Speak and was born again as an open-minded maverick worthy of a Joseph Campbell allegory.
She is a reluctant heroine, and very much a woman who towed the line - until it snapped, and with it her patience. And look at her now - enough money not to work again for nine lifetimes, and enough creativity never to stop. Woke is the revenge of the dullard on the wit, the curtain-twitcher on the headline-maker, the wallflower on the whirling dancer - but revenge is also a dish best eaten cold, and in public, for a great sum of money, as JK Rowling proves so triumphantly.