What do you know about JK Rowling? Probably not a great deal. That she was once a single mother living on state benefits; that she wrote her first Harry Potter book in a café in order to escape her cold, grotty flat; that she’s now staggeringly wealthy (her personal wealth is estimated at half a billion pounds).
What does JK Rowling know about JK Rowling? All of the above, plus a few other bits and pieces, of course. That her late mother was a quarter French. That her great-grandfather was a hero of the First World War who was awarded France’s most prestigious award, the Légion d’honneur, for his bravery. That her aunt has got one of his medals at home.
At least, she thought she knew all that. But in the course of recording an emotional episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (to be broadcast as part of the new series that starts this week), JK – “Jo” to everyone who knows her – discovered that some of the truths she and her family have held dear for decades are as fictional as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. “I was braced for surprises,” says Rowling, 46, with a touch of understatement, “and I certainly got plenty of those.”
On why she took part…
It’s pretty extraordinary that the author agreed to be a subject of the programme in the first place – and to answer some questions from RT about her experience. She’s given remarkably few interviews about her life, saying she likes to be “private”. The newspapers, perhaps cross that she won’t reveal her innermost emotions, call her “reclusive”. So why did she agree to take part in the show?
The answer lies with her mother, Anne, who died, aged just 45, in 1990. With only 20 years between them, Jo and Anne were extremely close. But Anne, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, died without ever knowing what lay round the corner for her daughter.
“Mum died when I had just started writing Harry Potter. It’s a real regret that I never even mentioned it to her, that she died without knowing anything about something so huge,” Rowling explains in the programme. Her mother “was very interested in her French roots but never had a chance to explore them. So a huge motivation in looking into my family history is my mother. It’s very much bound up in that loss.”
On crying during filming…
Rowling tells RT: “I probably felt as everyone does when they agree to be the subject of this programme: excited, apprehensive, very curious, definitely nervous… I think I cried on three separate occasions – I don’t know whether I’ve set a record.” One emotional moment arrives early in her journey – as Rowling attempts to track down details of the Légion d’honneur won by her great-grandfather, Louis Volant. By a surprising coincidence, Rowling herself was awarded the Légion d’honneur, in 2009, for services to literature. She was presented with the award by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and newspaper reports of the time show how proud she was of her illustrious ancestor.
“I cannot say I think that I truly deserve it, but the Légion d’honneur has a particular and personal meaning,” she declared in her acceptance speech. “I like to believe [Louis] would be happy to know there is a second Légion d’honneur in the family.” Uh-oh. If there’s one thing regular viewers of WDYTYA? know well – even if the celebrities taking part in the show seem oblivious to it – it is that family “truths” passed from one generation to the next often prove to be cast not in iron but fool’s gold.
On overturning family myths…
For Rowling makes a shattering discovery in the programme. There was indeed a man called Louis Volant who won the Légion d’honneur for an act of wartime bravery. But this Louis had the wrong birthday, the wrong handwriting, the wrong injuries – and was not related to Rowling.
So what of the golden lapel badge with Louis’s name in the centre and inscribed with the words “étoile d’honneur” (“star of honour”) – a treasured keepsake of Rowling’s aunt, who has looked after it for years on behalf of the family? This was nothing to do with the Légion d’honneur, but an accolade – probably a ten-a-penny one at that – from Louis’s trade union. (Rowling’s great-grandfather had been a wine waiter.)
It is only at this point in the programme that Rowling allows herself to voice a doubt about the authenticity of the badge. “I’ve been given the Légion d’honneur,” she says, “and I have nothing like this.”
The revelation that her family has been passing myths on from generation to generation hit Rowling hard, as WDYTYA? director Leo Burley recalls from behind the camera. “She became very concerned – this was a family story that had been told not just by her mother, but by everyone. She found it embarrassing and was worried about how things were going to turn out.”
An innocent mistake? Or a deliberate deception by Louis? There’s a fascinating twist to this tale – and RT won’t spoil the ending by revealing it. Nor by disclosing the story of the family’s heart-rending experiences during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.
On discovering a long line of single mothers…
There is another fascinating aspect of Rowling’s investigations. Rowling’s research led her to encounter her great-grandmother Lizzie, her great-great-grandmother Salomé, and her great-great-great-grandmother Christine.
All three of them were, for one reason or another, single mothers. Christine’s husband Jacques died while she was pregnant with their seventh child; Salomé, a lowly Parisian housemaid, was an unmarried mother of four; and Lizzie was left to bring up Rowling’s grandfather single-handedly after her husband, Louis (the chap who didn’t win the Légion d’honneur), divorced her, and returned to his native France.
On her own family life…
Which brings us back to Rowling, of course – perhaps one of the most famous single mothers in the country. She’s now happily married to Neil Murray, a doctor, with whom she’s had a son, David, eight, and daughter, Mackenzie, six, but when she was writing the first Harry Potter book in that warm Edinburgh café, she’d recently returned from Portugal – the scene of an ill-fated and short-lived first marriage when she was 27 to TV journalist Jorge Arantes, which produced her beloved daughter Jessie (now 18).
“There was a point where I really felt I had ‘penniless divorcee lone parent’ tattooed on my head,” she once remarked. In the programme, Rowling reflects on this: “What I’m very struck by is how many single mothers I’m descended from in this line of the family. There’s a definite parallel here. Twenty years ago, I was teaching and writing in my spare time and was very skint. And then not long after that, I became a single mum, so I feel the connection.”
You can see the power this discovery has over her. Meeting her forebears – even through the filter of written records and social historians’ explanations – was clearly an intense experience for the writer. “There were a lot of big surprises, some wonderful, and one rather upsetting,” Rowling tells RT. “However, I went into the programme wanting the truth, no matter what it was, because I knew so little about my French ancestry, and I don’t regret a moment of it. I loved the whole experience.
“The story both was, and wasn’t, what I expected,” she adds. “It is inevitably a very emotional experience. I can’t really explain why what happened to our ancestors means so much to us but I found myself so caught up in their stories, and so worried about them, even though they are beyond my help now.
“It is humbling to see yourself as a tiny part of a huge family tree – but it’s also strangely reassuring.”
The new series of Who Do You think You Are? begins 9pm Wednesday August 10 on BBC1, JK Rowling will feature in a later episode