The Original ‘J. K.’ a French Novelist?

The great lacuna in Potter studies is what Rowling read and loved in her French studies at Exeter and beyond.

Victor Hugo and Colette are the only authors we have for certain from her testimony and names in her work and Manon Lescaut is the only French story title she has mentioned as a favorite.

There is a famous French writer, though, Joris-Karl Huysmans, who was known by his first initials, i.e., ‘J. K.’ 

Never heard of him? Me, neither. From his wikipedia page:

Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans(5 February 1848 – 12 May 1907) was a French novelist and art critic who published his works as Joris-Karl Huysmans, variably abbreviated as J. K. or J.-K.). He is most famous for the novel À rebours (1884, published in English as Against the Grain or Against Nature). He supported himself by a 30-year career in the French civil service.

Huysmans’ work is considered remarkable for its idiosyncratic use of the French language, large vocabulary, descriptions, satirical wit and far-ranging erudition. First considered part of Naturalism, he became associated with the decadent movement with his publication of À rebours. His work expressed his deep pessimism, which had led him to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. In later years, his novels reflected his study of Catholicism, religious conversion, and becoming an oblate. He discussed the iconography of Christian architecture at length in La cathédrale (1898), set at Chartres and with its cathedral as the focus of the book.

Là-bas (1891), En route (1895) and La cathédrale (1898) are a trilogy that feature Durtal, an autobiographical character whose spiritual progress is tracked and who converts to Catholicism. In the novel that follows, L’Oblat (1903), Durtal becomes an oblate in a monastery, as Huysmans himself was in the Benedictine Abbey at Ligugé, near Poitiers, in 1901. La cathédrale was his most commercially successful work. Its profits enabled Huysmans to retire from his civil service job and live on his royalties.

I wonder if Huysmans was well known to the Presence through her French studies at Exeter or travels in France and if she thought her life as a school teacher and sometime writer when she became J. K. herself would parallel his life as a civil servant cum author when she chose the ‘K’ for her faux middle initial.

The ‘Kathleen’ as grandmother’s name is not a reason per se because she had many other relatives, I’m sure, and teachers whose names she might have chosen. As her ‘Galbraith’ and “Potter’ “explanations,” the K-rationale rings hollow.

I am not a Francophone or Francophile as noted. So I asked Cory Faniel at La Gazette du Sorcier, “Is Huysmans someone Rowling is sure to have read, a French studies staple akin to Zola, Hugo, and Proust?” Cory responded promptly for his staff at France’s most important Wizarding World fan site:

Huysmans is not a big name in French studies as far as we know.

We had to Google him. He might be briefly mentionned when discussing L’Assommoir de Zola.

Note that no one in my team studied French Literature in France at University, so were are not completely aware of the details of programs on offer.

I reached out to Beatrice Groves as well. Nope; this French novelist J. K. is not an author with whom she is familiar.

Anyone out there a Modern Languages major with a concentration in French Literature care to comment? Is this J. K. an author that Rowling is likely to have read at Exeter? Any similarities between his work and hers, i.e., was this an association that she might have wanted a well read (in French!) person to make? It trumps J. K. Galbraith, no?


  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I don’t know anything about Exeter in JKR’s day, but suppose there must be records of however they did things – lecture lists/course descriptions, reading lists/set papers – and who taught French there and then – if one knew how/where to find them (something I have not attempted at all (yet?)…).

    I think of J.-K. Huysmans as one of the famous ‘occult’-related writers I have not read (partly because of a hear-say sense of how nasty/creepy some of what he treats sounds). Where did I get that sense? I’ll have to browse around and see if, e.g., Charles Williams or H.P. Lovecraft discuss him in something I’ve read of theirs (e.g., C.W.’s Witchcraft, H.P.L.’s Supernatural Horror in Literature?)

    But I’d think he’s definitely worth looking into as possible JKR ‘background’ (with, I take it, suitable circumspection). I see there are free LibriVox audiobooks of English translations of À rebours and the trilogy, with links to the texts online (Project Gutenberg or Internet Archive scans).

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Nothing in C.W.’s Witchcraft (or the Wade online catalogue of MSS.). An intriguing reference in HPL’s Supernatural Horror in Literature: Huysmans as “psychological novelist”, “at once the summation and finale” of a stream of “strange poets and fantaisistes of the symbolic and decadent schools whose dark interests really centre more in abnormalities of human thought and instinct than in the actual supernatural”. The second-, third, and fourth-last paragraphs of chapter six are probably worth reading in the context of JKR’s possible French reading. ( has a transcription.) I wonder where else I did read about Huysmans?

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