Rowling’s American Family

The Rowlings: Jo, Di, Bryony and Ben

It may not be common knowledge but J. K. Rowling has close family who are American citizens – living in the USA and working in the creative arts and who have spoken publicly of their connection to the more famous J. K. Rowling.

They are her two Rowling cousins, the children of her father’s brother, who are pictured on the right with Joanne and Dianne. After the jump find out more about author and voice actress B. J. Rowling and her musician brother Ben.

I’ve been idly researching Peter Rowling’s sale of his signed first editions of Harry Potter. According to the Daily Mirror article from 2003, J. K. Rowling’s father put the books into the hands of a niece who lives in New York for her to see through auction. This niece is Bryony Rowling who currently lives in Florida. She is a voice actress and has co-written a young adult novel under the name B. J. Rowling entitled The Misfit Tribe and the Secret of Mystery Island. Using the hashtag #THEOTHERROWLING and advertising as the edgier Rowling, her book has so far escaped popular notice.

Back Row: Pete, Julie, Anne, Jeff  Front Row: Ben, Di, Ernest, Bryony and Jo

She has a brother Ben Rowling who gained brief notoriety appearing on the US television program ‘Lie Detector’ in 2005 to prove he was the ‘real’ Harry Potter. He is now an audio engineer and musician living in NYC.

The children of both families grew up close to Bristol where Peter Rowling and his brother Jeffrey worked in the Rolls Royce factory.

I can’t find an archive copy of the original article, but Ben Rowling appeared in a Daily Mail feature on 25th September 2004:

When I read the first Harry Potter book, my jaw dropped, It was uncanny, far more than a coincidence. I know Jo based Harry on me. I can see so much of the young me in his character. Growing up, Jo and I were inseparable and even today people stop me and tell me I look just like Harry Potter.

The Daily Mail, perhaps too generously, states that “The resemblance is striking — there is an amazing similarity to Daniel Radcliffe, the actor J.K. Rowling approved to play Potter.” Ben attended a prestigious boarding school in Yorkshire while J. K. Rowling attended the local state funded comprehensive school.

I can remember Dad berating uncle Pete about why he didn’t send his kids to a decent school, and he would say: “Oh, the comp [i.e. comprehensive school] is good enough for them,”

The children of both families grew up on the outskirts of Bristol, the most populous city in Southwest England, as brothers Jeffrey and Peter worked at the Rolls Royce factory there.

We used to spend the weekends swopping stories about our schooldays, Jo and I hung out together all the time. She was always fascinated about what I had been up to at school and used to love me telling her about the scrapes and escapades I had been involved in. She made me repeat the stories to her over and over again.

Educated first at the Downs Preparatory School in Bristol and later at Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire, Ben was keen to highlight the parallels between his schooling and Hogwarts.

When I left home to travel up to Ampleforth, I’d always catch the train from Platform 9 at Bristol’s Temple Meads Station. Jo used to love hearing about my journeys and was always asking me if there had been any adventures on board. The Downs also had four houses, and the school cup at the end of the year was a huge event, just like it is at Hogwarts. There is even a student in one of the books called Frobisher, which was the name of one of the houses at Ampleforth. I also had another aunt and uncle who lived in Dursley in Gloucestershire — in the novels, Harry’s aunt and uncle are called the Dursleys.

It is perhaps not well known outside of the UK, but most schools here are organised into houses, even non-fee-paying ones. My own school in South Wales had the houses Llewelyn, Rhodri, Howell and Glyndwr (all Welsh heroes, and this despite Glyndwr [Glendower in Shakespeare] burning our town to the ground). I struggle to imagine a school more remote from Hogwarts than my alma mater, Llanilltud Fawr Comprehensive.

Middle Row: Ben, Di, Bryony, Jo

Jo was a quiet, shy child, she wore glasses and only really seemed happy when she was telling stories or was immersed in a book. Sometimes, when we were alone together, Jo would tell me her dad was very cold and distant towards her, and I think she felt she didn’t really know him very well. Both Peter and her mum Anne were very strict and she complained that they never showed her any love. I think that affected her profoundly. She often appeared sad and lonely, and when I see pictures of her today she doesn’t seem to have changed. She rarely seems to smile.

Jo was left to create her own imaginary little world. She wrote a book about a magical rabbit when she was only eight. One day, we sat fishing on the banks of the River Wye and she told me the story. She had a soft, low voice and the story was totally captivating. She was a gifted storyteller even then. The stories were always full of magic and wonderful characters with funny names. When we were young, we’d often play in the woods backing onto Jo’s parents’ home. We would spend hours in there, acting out the plays Jo would write about mystical kingdoms, flying carpets and talking animals. The forbidden forest in Harry Potter reminded me about those days so much.

Prof. Granger has already written about Rowling’s troubled relationship with her father, a relationship that finally and irrevocably broke down when he sold the signed copies of Harry Potter that JKR gifted to him. Ben, who at the time of the article still appeared to be in contact with Jo’s father, noted that she was ‘devastated’ when her father re-married so quickly safter her mother’s death of MS:

I never spoke to Jo about it, but I knew through the family that she wasn’t happy about it, Soon afterwards, she and her dad fell out. I think she was convinced he had started an affair before their mum died.

Ben confirmed that his sister helped in the sale of the books.

She was very upset by that, and I know for a fact they haven’t spoken since,

At the time the article was published Ben Rowling was declared bankrupt and it is clear that the prime motivation in trying to reconnect with JKR was financial:

It’s been pretty tough since Dad died and that’s when I started trying to get in contact with Jo, I wrote letters, I called her, I rang her agent and her publisher, but I heard nothing. I can’t believe Jo has abandoned me and the Rowling family like this. She has more money than any person can spend in a lifetime and she knows I’m broke and yet she hasn’t reached out a finger to help. The irony is that she has created these wonderful books which have brought so much pleasure to so many millions of people, and yet she has cut herself off from her own flesh and blood.

None of us can understand why she has dumped the Rowling side of the family even though she continues to use our name. I think she is angry with her dad because of her upbringing, which she thought was cold and unloving, so she has cut out the whole of his side of the family. I remember the little girl I loved and compare her with the person she is today. I think she is a prisoner of her own fame. She has all the money in the world and I hope she is happy — but I think she is not.

Ben later appeared on the US television series Lie Detector to defend his claim of being the real Harry Potter and to prove his assertion that money is not a motivation:

The father of Bryony and Ben was Jeffrey Ernest Rowling 1943-1998, so his comment that his cousin honored his father by naming one of her daughters after him is a mystery. 

Perhaps the last word on this subject should go to J. K. Rowling who posted in the rubbish section of her old website:

Harry Potter based on JKR’s cousin

Once more I put fingers to keyboard to state wearily that Harry is a completely imaginary character. He is not based on any of the men I have met during my lifetime who wore glasses, or any of the boys who had a scar somewhere on their face, or any of my friends who went to boarding school.

But wait – now I stop and think about it, I’M the real Harry Potter! I wear glasses, I’ve got a scar, my school had houses, I sometimes got into trouble… so stand by to read a story in some tabloid tomorrow headlined: ‘Rowling Demands Half-Share of Own Royalties’.

Unfortunately and depressingly, these sorts of stories crop up all the time (see my ‘Biography’). There is nothing any author can do to stop people claiming that they ‘inspired’ characters. I can only tell the truth and trust that readers with a grain of sense will know whom to believe.

 

Comments

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Thanks for this (or should I say, diolch yn fawr?)! So, the first question that springs to my mind is, how Catholic was Ampleforth, that Benedictine college, when Benedict went there? Or, again, how (un)likely to accept non-Catholics?

    What were the rules about attending services, then, and where were they held? The current college site says both that “The sacramental life of the school is centred on the Abbey Church” and “each boarding house has its own Chapel and Chaplain and celebrates Mass during the week.”

    A quick glance down Wikipedia’s list of Old Amplefordians does not show all that many likely to have coincided with Ben, though David Mohato Bereng Seeiso, currently enjoying the twenty-fifth year of his second reign as King Letsie III is one of them.

    And, how Catholic were/are JKR’s cousins, uncle, great uncle, father?

    And, what of the chapel(s) and Chaplain(s) of Hogwarts?

  2. Nick Jeffery says

    Thank you David, some excellent questions, only some of which I can answer. How Catholic was Ampleforth? Very https://thecritic.co.uk/the-knives-come-out-for-ampleforth-and-its-monks/.
    As for the family, the cousins don’t seem particularly religious, and JKR’s father married in All Saints in Islington which is a protestant Church of England church.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Thank you – for all those answers!

    And, what a warm and vivid evocation of how Catholic it still was by someone twelve years younger than Benedict Rowling.

    I’ve enjoyed the first of Catholic boarding school books by Father Francis J. Finn, who started it while teaching at one, and they seem to have been widely translated, but have no sense of whether they are part of a distinct genre, nor, if so, how likely JKR would ever have been to encounter such things.

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