J. K. Rowling: ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ BBC4

From August 2011, the BBC4 Celebrity Genealogy program ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ on Joanne Rowling:

You can read the Telegraph television guide’s review of the program here. I thought his comments insightful and pedestrian simultaneously and the show well worth watching. My three notes after the jump and a few paragraphs from the Telegraph piece.

Rowling [on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?] was personable, articulate, interested (plenty of wows and gasps), sympathetic (“Such an unfitting end for a really extraordinary man”). There was – and I’ve noticed this before – an ever-present air of mild anxiety about her; even when she smiles, it’s an anxious-looking smile: her mouth seems to want to turn down at the corners. She came across a bit like a favourite teacher from primary school (as a matter of fact, she did use to teach). Imagine if Miss Honey, the lovely but downtrodden teacher in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, had become a multimillionaire author.

The most memorable editions of this programme, though, have charismatic subjects: Stephen Fry, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Paxman. It’s not that their family trees are more interesting; it’s that they themselves are. After all, Fry and Johnson and Paxman make their living out of their personalities. JK Rowling doesn’t; she makes a living out of her talent. Great for her books, not quite so great for television.

So in the end we know lots about JK Rowling’s ancestors but still not much about her. The truth remains hidden. Unless of course the truth is that she’s simply a pleasant, courteous, fairly ordinary woman with a preternatural flair for writing stories. Which I reluctantly suppose is possible. Perhaps we shouldn’t care so much about what authors are “really like”, but I don’t think it’s shameful; it’s just curiosity about human beings and their interior lives, which is, of course, one reason we’re drawn to fiction in the first place.

Three quick notes here almost a year after this was broadcast:

(1) The program is staged and filmed as if we are witnessing the revelations being made to the subject, here Joanne Rowling Murray, in real time. Forgive me for the skepticism of my age but I find it hard to believe that we are watching Ms. Rowling learn about her one-eighth French heritage ‘in the moment,’ if you will; the camera set-ups are meant to suggest this but their ubiquity and the remarkable and extensive research that has been done in advance of her arrival at various destinations in France, destinations the show presents as Ms. Rowling’s decisions in reaction to what she has just learned, are hard to accept as face value.

I find myself also thinking it borderline incredible that her great grandfather won the Croix de guerre, was aware of it, and never mentioned it in his letters to family. Given what we learn in the program, Louis Volant merited the award because he was ‘mentioned in despatches’ but I suspect his great-grand-daughter’s fame, her membership in the Legion of Honour, and the embarrassment of learning that her family legend about Louis Volant being also a member was not true had as much to do with his being decorated posthumously as his battlefield heroics.

(2) So, no, I don’t think Ms. Rowling was learning things in filmed ‘real time’ or that the trip to Alsace was something Ms. Rowling just felt she had to do. The historian’s and archivist’s significant preparations for her visit were not thrown together in the time it took the camera crew and curious descendant to make the drive from Paris to the German border. On the other hand, contrary to the reviewer’s disappointment that we learned little about the author on her brief odyssey into her family history, I was impressed by her show of emotion as she learned about Louis Volant’s war service — and especially her anger on learning that his remains were moved to a common grave in 1968. Her shame and embarrassment here are as significant and authentic as her pride in and identification with the several single mothers in her Gallic lineage that are her spoken conclusions at show’s end.

(3) I disagree with the reviewer about Ms. Rowling coming off as something of a wall flower — but, to my own surprise, I found myself agreeing with him that this sort of look at a favorite author isn’t just curiosity about celebrities, a sort of postmodern adoration of an aristocracy of fame rather than blood. Readers here know I have little but disdain for the Personal Heresy, that is, reading works primarily as the projection on the page of an author’s psychobiography or resolution of internal issues. Even C. S. Lewis, after all, the critic who named this heresy, asserted that a work of fantasy literature is only possible to understand in the context of its creator’s spiritual bearings.

Hence, though I have written more on the substantive part of Stephenie Meyer’s works, reading them as literature first and as allegory and edifying myth rather than personal or cultural artifact, I have been obliged to explore her faith as a Latter-day Saint and what her fiction suggests about its place in her life in addition to that substantive reading. I have done this much less with Ms. Rowling, probably to the detriment of my understanding of her work. Her admittedly “left wing” politics and “radical” history, her family tragedies and conflicts, especially the break with her father after his provocatively precipitous second marriage after the death of Rowling’s mother, even the many doctors who testify that the author has had extensive cosmetic surgery on her face and chest (which testimony I doubt very much, on grounds other than the equally authoritative counter testimonies) tell us something about her work that I have left to others.

I don’t expect to ‘go there,’ however, anytime soon. I think we’ll need a professionally researched critical biography before that is more than an ad hoc speculative exercise, as admittedly what I have written about Mrs. Meyer must be with the few materials available about her. I don’t and won’t blush, though, about watching this kind of teevee program and ‘The Year in the Life’ special filmed in 2006 and 2007 (below). I think they are narrow and colored windows, maybe even Fun House distorting glasses, into the author’s mind, but even that small opening into a controlled narrative can foster a greater sympathy with the heart within a text.

Your thoughts, comments, and corrections, of course, are coveted.


  1. Thanks for the link, an interesting, but certainly well choreographed show.
    Looking at ancestors is a mixed deal, some are good, some a bit less desirable. However, you can pick and choose to determine which story you would like to tell. Ancestors increase exponentially, 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 16 greats and so on so lots of choices.
    Jo likes the strong woman meme and for some reason French over possible German, although from the names there clearly is a German component as well.
    Which ancestors we pick to cherish, and which to let quietly sit in their closet tells us about ourselves.

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