The TERF Who Came to Tea & Murdoch: Is J. K. Rowling Writing Her Memoirs?

J. K. Rowling visited ‘JKR’s Barmy Book Army’ last week and it seems a good time was had by all (see the follow-up tweets about the visit here and here). “All you women, fighting your private and public fights, and all of you who are suffering as a result of this ideology, rest assured: this woman is with you. She’s listening and watching and thinking deeply.” I suspect as encouraging as this drop-in and conversation was to the women in Rowling’s audience it was as meaningful and heartening to The Presence.

I want to note the book Rowling held up to the camera, though, with the premise that she did this deliberately and with intention greater than advertising the Booker Prize winning novel that the Barmy Book Army discussed on her visit. As no mention is made of a book in the several tweets about her time at BBA-HQ or even of conversation about books in general, it is possible that it was the novel Rowling brought with her — and that she wanted the Royal Society of Rowling Readers to think seriously about it.

The novel in her hand is Iris Murdoch‘s The Sea, the Sea. I haven’t read it, alas, but Wikipedia tells me that this is the plot:

The Sea, the Sea is a tale of the strange obsessions that haunt a self-satisfied playwright and director as he begins to write his memoirs. Murdoch’s novel exposes the motivations that drive her characters – the vanity, jealousy, and lack of compassion behind the disguises they present to the world. Charles Arrowby, its central figure, decides to withdraw from the world and live in seclusion in a house by the sea. While there, he encounters his first love, Mary Hartley Fitch, whom he has not seen since his love affair with her as an adolescent. Although she is almost unrecognisable in old age, and outside his theatrical world, he becomes obsessed by her, idealising his former relationship with her and attempting to persuade her to elope with him. His inability to recognise the egotism and selfishness of his own romantic ideals is at the heart of the novel. After the farcical and abortive kidnapping of Mrs. Fitch by Arrowby, he is left to mull over her rejection in a self-obsessional and self-aggrandising manner over the space of several chapters. “How much, I see as I look back, I read into it all, reading my own dream text and not looking at the reality… Yes of course I was in love with my own youth… Who is one’s first love?”

Three quick notes on why Rowling might have held up this title for her serious readers’ attention, beyond “I like this book,” “Here’s what I’m reading now,” or “Had a great conversation about Murdoch with the BBA today!”:

(1) “Love and Loss:” Rowling told Cruz in 2008 that “I did not write only to escape but because I searched to understand ideas which concerned me. Ideas such as love, loss, separation, death… and all that is reflected in the first book.” She wrote about Troubled Blood that “change, loss, and absence” were its “major themes.” The Iris Murdoch page at Wikipedia describes The Sea, The Sea  as “a finely detailed novel about the power of love and loss.” Rowling may be signaling here that she is at a similar stage in here career of writing as Murdoch, the pan-sexual philosophical novelist, was when she wrote The Sea, the Sea, her nineteenth work. They certainly seem to be on the same thematic page.

(2) The Water: Troubled Blood‘s burial at sea on Easter morning of Aunt Joan and Strike’s later reflections at the ocean-side resort about his Cornish connection with the Absolute in its most powerful symbol, not to mention the ubiquity and constancy of rain and flooding in Strike5, make the Xenophon pointer in Murdoch’s title another link between Rowling and this book. Murdoch, a student of the ‘Greats’ at Oxford, simultaneously referenced in The Sea, the Sea‘s title a poem by Paul Valery, ‘The Graveyard by the Sea,’ and the most famous scene in the Anabasis that Valery was noting, in which the Greek mercenaries fleeing the Persians see the Mediterranean at last and weep in grateful recognition of their returning home, symbolically their salvation and victory over death. Again, Rowling is making the gesture so we connect the dots between her work and Murdoch’s.

(3) A Memoir: The story told in The Sea, the Sea is of an aging writer consumed by his past caught up in reflections, outrageous behaviors, and no little regret about “love and loss.” The book is that writer’s attempt at a memoir. Is Rowling-Galbraith-Murray at a similar point in her own life? Could this display of The Sea, the Sea be the first indication that Rowling is writing her own Apologia Pro Vita Sua? Rowling’s work is becoming increasingly autobiographical, obviously in The Christmas Pig in which the story premise is from her own family but in which she also makes a cameo appearance herself as Jeannie’s mum, and less obviously but I suspect more profoundly in the core cause of Margot Bamborough’s death in Troubled Blood. If Rowling is writing up her life story, “listening, watching, and thinking deeply,” she dropped her first clue about that on this visit to JKR’s Barmy Book Army. As she said in her 1998 interview, “You heard it here first.”



  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Is that a Kaufman, Hart, and Woollcott reference in the Book Army’s title?

    And, do we know if JKR enjoyed Jean Rhys’s Wide Satgasso Sea, which somehow sprang to mind by association, seeing your identification of Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea?

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