Troubled Blood: Rowling Father Echoes

There are five crises in Rowling’s life that, because of the author’s description of her inspiration and writing process (‘The Lake and the Shed’) as beginning with subconscious resolution of her personal issues, serious readers of her work are obliged to acknowledge. The terminal illness and death of Anne Volant Rowling is the first crisis in sequence and power of influence and the break-up of The Presence’s first marriage and consequent years in the UK’s social safety net are a close second. Next come her break with her father Peter after Anne’s death and his re-marriage, the Potter-panic of international criticism from Christian groups about the magic in her Harry Potter books, and, most recently, the avalanche of criticism and de facto blacklisting she has endured in the past year consequent to her stand against transgender activist overreach in the United Kingdom.

There are other events that caused extensive media coverage or personal problems — I think of the Vander Ark plagiarism lawsuit, the Levesden Inquiry testimony, the Amanda Donaldson kerfuffle, her Skydome talk in Toronto, the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony in London, and the Harvard Commencement speech — but the five crises that challenged her sufficiently that the echoes are evident in her work stand apart and above these. Only the Harvard talk, the only time she has spoken even indirectly to an audience about how to live one’s life, is important in this collection of what could be filed under ‘Rowling Media Moments.’

Today I want to review Rowling’s relationship history with her father Peter and its reflections in her work, the “stuff” given to her by her interior Lake to work out her daddy issues that was reworked in story. I ‘go there,’ not because any of it is news or new ground, but because it has not been updated with respect to the story events of Troubled Blood, in whose characters and testimony ‘Peter Rowling,’ archetypal Bad Dad, gets a fresh treatment.

Join me after the jump for a review of the family history, of Peter Rowling’s shadow in Rowling’s work, for the Troubled Blood reappearance, and why we should care about Rowling’s “exteriorization” in story of her interior conflicts with her father.

The History: Rowling’s relationship with her father as far as the public record goes was nothing of note until after the death of her mother Anne on 30 December 1990. She left for Portugal soon after. Her father did not come to Porto for the Rowling-Arantes wedding in 1992, an absence he claims was due to not having a valid passport (he was also not a guest at the Edinburgh wedding of his daughter Dianne in 1993; her sister was present for Jo Rowling’s civil wedding in Portugal but neither sibling made it their father’s second marriage ceremony). Rowling returned to the UK with young child after the collapse of her marriage in 1993 and was helped by her sister and Sean Harris but not her father. When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997, it was dedicated to Rowling’s mother, sister, and daughter, all her living relations, that is, except her father.

Sean Smith discusses the rift in J. K. Rowling: A Biography:

The obvious question to ask is why [Joanne] did not stay with her father while she took stock [on her return from Portugal in late 1993], especially as Christmas was near? He had maintained a good job with Rolls Royce and, bearing in mind how close the family had always been, it would seem the most natural course of action. But circumstances had changed. Pete Rowling had remarried at the age of forty-eight, little more than two years after Joanne’s mother Anne had died. His new wife Janet Gallivan, eight years his junior, had been his secretary….

After Joanne had become a celebrated author the newspapers aired rumors of a rift. The Sunday Express wrote of an ‘unhappy family secret’ in January 2001: ‘Within a few months of his first wife Anne’s death from multiple sclerosis, Mr Rowling and Janet Gallivan had set up home together to the astonishment of their own families.’ That home was a modest two-bedroomed house on a new housing estate in Chepstow, a couple of miles from Church Cottage. Janet had left her husband and two sons behind in Bristol. (119)

Both Smith and Connie Kirk in her Rowling biography report that there is no evidence or public testimony of infidelity on Peter’s part with his secretary during Anne Rowling’s ten year physical decline and death. Only the circumstantial evidence of the break-up of Janet Gallivan’s marriage soon after Anne’s death and her move to Chepstow suggests anything inappropriate. For his part, Peter told reporters at the Sunday Mirror in June 2003 that he finds the rumors insulting and that he did not take up with his secretary until more than a year after Anne’s death:

Peter is still hurt by claims a rift developed between him and Joanne because he met current wife Jan, his former secretary at Rolls Royce in Bristol, after her mother – his first wife Anne who died in 1990 – was struck down by multiple sclerosis.

He said: “The inference is a bloody insult. I’d challenge anyone to wire me up to a lie detector and ask me the truth. My relationship with Jan didn’t start until a year after Anne died.” (‘I’ve Lost JK‘)

It was not until [Rowling’s fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire], that she devoted one of her works to her father. It was suggested that she was furious with Peter over his marriage to second wife Janet, 50, after her mother’s death.

A rift is said to have developed because Peter met Janet, his former secretary at the Rolls-Royce factory in Bristol, while Anne was ill with MS.

But Peter said: “It is all lies. It has been suggested I was drawn to Janet while Anne was fighting her illness. Well, that is a bloody insult. I was not drawn to anybody while Anne was alive and for some time after her death. I have worried in the past that, if Joanne keeps reading it, she will believe it. People say there is no smoke without fire. But I have spoken to Joanne and told her it’s not true and she accepts that.”

Peter said his relationship with Janet did not start until December 1991 – more than a year after Anne’s death. “I find it odd people can think that we don’t get on. Isn’t it funny she dedicated a book to me if that is the case?

“What no one knows is that I took Joanne and Di to Portugal in June 1991, six months after Anne passed away as we tried to come to terms with it. If there was some sort of rift at that time, we would hardly have gone on a family holiday. We have discussed all these stories saying we don’t get on and it has actually made us closer….” (Potter Author Rowling’s Father Tells of Her Agony)

There was a reconciliation of father and daughter by 2000 and Goblet’s publication. Rowling’s father and step-mother were present at the University of Exeter’s giving their most famous alumna an honorary doctorate and were invited to the 2001 Boxing Day Rowling-Murray wedding in Edinburgh. “”Joanne paid £10,000 for myself and Janet to travel up in a Cessna executive jet and we had Mercedes limos pick us up from the airport. I was bursting with pride” (‘Agony’).

Peter still has fond memories of her secret wedding two years ago at their Scottish mansion.

“It was a fantastic event. I was full of pride and so happy for Jo. She looked gorgeous, lovely. It was a marvellous day,” said Peter, who was among just 14 guests.

“Jan and I had our instructions to drive to Bristol airport and we had to go to a special area where the private jets are.”

Joanne picked up the £10,000 bill for the couple to be flown by Cessna executive jet to Edinburgh. There they were met by private limo and whisked to the mansion.

“Jan and I got changed and then it was time for the ceremony, which was kept quite simple.”

Peter glows with pride when he looks at the picture of Jo in a gold dress and a tiara and him with an affectionate arm around her.

“I wasn’t called upon to formally give her away or make a speech or anything like that. It was just a lovely day. We stayed over that night and flew back from Edinburgh the next morning.” (‘Lost JK’)

The relationship broke up again in 2003, a rift caused, according to Peter, by his selling an autographed copy of Harry Potter books Joanne had given him via a Sotheby’s auction (he tried to sell four but only one met the minimum price required). The Sunday Mirror articles quoted above were written to explain this sale and, I am obliged to suspect, dad was paid a significant fee by the newspaper to air the family laundry at the peak of Potter-Mania. The Rowling daughters were interviewed by James Runcie in 2007 for ITV’s ‘A Year in the Life’ in which they discussed relations with dad. It’s not pretty.

Rowling’s admission here on nationally broadcast television that she was “very frightened of my father for a very long time” and had only relatively recently given up the pursuit of his approval (“shamefully late in life”) are significant ‘tells.’

Peter Rowling claimed in a 2012 Daily Mail article after the publication of Casual Vacancy (and rumors were afloat that the violent father in this novel was based on him) that he and his famous daughter had “reunited.”

[Peter Rowling] has now revealed he has recently been reconciled with Miss Rowling and is ‘on good terms’ with her. At his £250,000 seaside flat in Swanage, Dorset, Mr Rowling said last week: ‘Joanne and I are fine. We talk now. Everything is good. There is no problem any more.

‘I have heard it contains a vile character supposedly based on me – a man who has a difficult relationship with a teenager – but I don’t know if that’s true. Either way, I’ll keep smiling. That’s the sort of person I am.’ 

It is believed that the character he is referring to is the father of Andrew,  a troubled adolescent central to The Casual Vacancy….

Miss Rowling, who has admitted that an episode in her new book is based  on her relationship with her father, said recently: ‘I did not have an easy relationship with my father.’

Two years ago she revealed: ‘It’s such a huge thing to be estranged from a parent, but there would have to be very big reasons for that. So that’s where I am. I have my reasons.

‘It wasn’t a good relationship for a very long time. But I had a need to please that I kept going for a long time and then there just came a point at which I had to pull up and say, “I can’t do this any more.” ’

A spokesman for Miss Rowling said the author did not wish to comment.

And that 2012 article, I believe, is where the public record on Peter-Joanne Rowling relations ends. I doubt his conversation with the Daily Mail helped, given his daughter’s aversion to media discussion of her private life, but she had spoken on the record at the height of her fame about him, so… we’ll leave it there.

Peter Rowling’s Shadow in J. K. Rowling’s Novels

I am not a fan of psycho-biographical interpretations of fiction for reasons explained at length in my 2012 post about all the autobiography obviously built into Casual Vacancy. Consequent to Rowling’s discussion about how she writes, however, in the 2019 interview with the BBC’s ‘Museum of Curiosity’ program, I have had to reconsider my position, at least with respect to Rowling. She insists in her ‘Lake and Shed’ metaphor that her work begins with her subconscious mind — the lady in her ‘Lake’ — digesting her problems and giving her “stuff,” inspiration for stories in which those psychological issues are laid out and resolved. Interpreting Rowling must include some discussion, then, of the way the five crises in her life are portrayed in her stories; it is the “stuff” with which they begin. The beginning reflecting the end, critics are obliged, per Updike’s dictum to weigh the merits of any work on whether the author achieved what they set out to do, to at least note her portrayal of her core issues.

Peter Rowling casts a long shadow across his daughter’s work in this regard. James Runcie’s conclusion in his ITV documentary about daughter Jo Rowling that “the absence of any meaningful relationship with her father” is one “of the most important influences on Jo’s writing” is hard to dispute.

In Harry Potter, for example, almost all of the Boy Who Lived’s father figures die; his biological father James is murdered by Voldemort, Sirius Black his godfather by Bellatrix LeStrange, Remus Lupin his favorite teacher by Antonin Dolohov, and Albus Dumbledore by Severus Snape. These deaths can all be read as wish-fulfillment fantasy on Rowling’s part because the fictional dads all die and they die  as good dads in self-sacrifice trying to protect their child or ward. Rowling admitted that she had planned to kill Arthur Weasley, too; he is attacked by Nagini in Order of the Phoenix and barely escapes death, a save Rowling admitted only happened because she realized she was killing all the fathers in the series. The central novel of the septology, Goblet of Fire, the one dedicated to Peter Rowling, of course, turns on Barty Crouch, Jr.’s, patricide of his negligent Minister of Magic daddy.

Worse, the character responsible for the death of Harry’s mother and his good father is the cowardly Peter Pettigrew, Mr Small Penis, who betrays his best friends to save his own skin. Harry prevents Lupin and Black from killing Peter in the Shrieking Shack, but Peter is Voldemort’s agent in his reincarnation, also in Goblet, and winds up dying an ignoble death in the Malfoy Manor basement because of his servitude to the Dark Lord. Rowling is no slouch with names so the Peter Pettigrew-Peter Rowling coincidence was almost certainly not accidental. That Peter Rowling has rodentine facial features is another suggestive pointer.

In Casual Vacancy, Rowling presents in story the man she was “very frightened of for a very long time.” The novel to begin with is set in a not very subtly disguised Tutshill, her childhood home, which sits on a hill with rivers and fields in relative splendor above downtrodden Sedbury, the equivalent of Vacancy‘s Pagford and Yarvil. Read this 2012 Daily Mail article for all the real-world transparencies and Rowling’s confession that she hated life as an adolescent in Tutshill.

Ms Rowling has admitted that the book is ‘very much me vividly remembering what it was like to be a teenager’ and that much of it is inspired by her experiences at the local comprehensive. It was not a happy time. ‘You couldn’t give me anything to make me go back to being a teenager,’ she told the Guardian. ‘Never. No, I hated it.’

Anyone familiar with Peter and Anne Rowling does not struggle to find the real world couple and their two children in rustic, fictional Pagsford. Simon Price is the story stand-in for Peter Rowling, a man whose family lives in fear of his arbitrary anger and violence. Andrew Price is the young Jo Rowling, Paul her younger sister Dianne, both of whom are terrified of their mad-dad, an ambitious social riser out of place in the upscale village. His wife Ruth Price, the nurse, is the long-suffering, apologetic Anne Rowling, who went back to work in a scientific field much as Ruth returns to nursing in the story. She is presented as a cartoon enabler living inside a co-dependency nightmare.

If Peter Rowling “just kept smiling” after reading Casual Vacancy, as he claimed, he must be incapable of emotional injury.

Which brings us to the Cormoran Strike novels and to Troubled Blood specifically.

Finding Rowling-Galbraith’s Daddy Issues in Cormoran Strike

Go ahead and name the positive depictions of fathers in the first five Strike novels.

My good dad list includes, well, it’s really just ‘Michael Ellacott.’ You can throw on Ted Nancarrow if you want, but he isn’t a biological father to anyone and his allowing his sister Leda to raise her son and daughter in squalor (and worse) with only occasional intervention is a major black mark against him as even a ‘father figure.’

Detective Inspector Talbot, too, gets a pass as more than okay from his son, despite having gone crazy and kept Kara Wolfson’s death a secret in his garage for forty years (he does much better as a ghost dad). His son? Three cheers for the attentive and caring foster parent! Brian Tucker? Greatest second act in history, but being a devoted dad to a dead daughter is nothing to brag on, really.

The Bad Dad list is a lot longer.

  • Two of the Bristow adopted children in Cuckoo’s Calling are killed by the third because dad refuses to see he has raised a psychopath.
  • Owen Quine in Silkworm? Loyal, maybe, to his daughter Orlando, but as self-consumed and absent a father as they come.
  • Donny Lainge, his father, Noel Brockbank, his father, Jeff Whittaker as Switch’s father and Lucy and Cormoran’s step-father, and Whittaker’s grandfather — and that’s just the three main suspects in Career of Evil.
  • Lethal White features a patricide in parallel with Goblet of Fire’s with Jasper Chiswell being unfaithful to his wife and children, not to mention siring hateful Freddie who all but murders his half-brother without consequences. There is Geraint Winn, whose only daughter commits suicide and who apparently was abusing her fencing girl teammates. Jack Knight, aka Jack o’Kent, gives the world Billy and Jimmy Knight, both the products of his physical and mental abuse of them at home when they were boys without a mother. Matt Cunliffe’s dad is portrayed as a drunken tosser as well.

Which brings us to Troubled Blood. Peter Rowling is all over Strike5, too.

First, once again, the bad guys all have wicked dad alibis for being psychotic. Dennis Creed’s father was his grandfather, a man who not only abused his son-grandson but was a man who serially raped the lad’s child-mother. How much worse do you get than that? Besides being Dennis Creed? Janice Beatty’s father and brother were violent men; she was thrown down the stairs, an event she thinks may have scrambled her thinking forever, and she got to watch her mother bleed out in an unassisted childbirth.

That’s just for starters.

The principal ‘Bad Dad’ of the series is Cormoran Strike’s larger-than-life rock-star absentee father Jonny Rokeby, lead singer for The Deadbeats. Strike says in every book of the series that he’d only met his father twice but in Blood Strike gets a birthday card and a Valentine’s Day phone call from Rokeby in which he begs his bastard son for reconciliation.

Not only that, after downing half a bottle of good whiskey Veritaserum and filled with remorse for clocking Robin, Cormoran finally shares what happened at the two Rokeby-Strike meetings. Not pretty! Rokeby doesn’t get any Father of the Year nominations for his telling his seven year old son he was an unwanted “accident,” welcoming his eighteen year old son with the news he was welcome to the boat-load of child support money he’d withheld from Strike’s mother, and for sending just a card to Selly Oak after Strike lost his leg in an Afghanistan IED explosion.

Did I mention that Rokeby didn’t offer to help Strike start his detective agency but set his attack dog lawyer on him to collect loan payments from Cormoran’s own child-support money? Rokeby’s trying to entice his son on Valentine’s Day to the mansion for a burying of the hatchet with something that sounded to Strike like a bribe didn’t advance his case at all. Strike comes unglued — and he barely holds it together when contacted by half-brother Al and half-sister Prudence with invitation to a photo-shoot to honor Daddy Rokeby.

Rokeby is revealed as the fount of almost all of Strike’s sublimated rage and difficulty in loving. Aunt Joan recognizes this and all but begs Strike in their most meaningful conversation to meet with his father to get past his Oedipal anger. No dice. He tells Polworth, another Western Man without a father and obviously no great shakes himself in the husband-dad department, that there is “Nothing doing” on the Rokeby front despite Joan’s hopes.

I’d say a large part of the Lake “stuff’ that gives us the Cormoran Strike series is inspiration about Rowling’s continuing effort to digest her struggles with her father Peter.

“Peter”? Once again, the only character in the series named ‘Peter’ is despicable. Strike tells Robin in their bare-all conversation after his near knock-out punch all about Rokeby’s hatchet man, Peter Gillespie:

“You get people like Gillespie round the rich and famous,” said Strike. “His whole ego was invested in being my father’s enforcer. The bastard was half in love with my old man, or with his fame, I dunno. I was pretty blunt on the phone about what I thought about Rokeby, and Gillespie couldn’t forgive it. I’d insisted on a loan agreement between us, and Gillespie was going to hold me to it, to punish me for telling him exactly what I thought of the pair of them.” 

Gillespie isn’t an obvious match for Peter Rowling but it may be a direct hit if Rowling is drawing a parallel between Gillespie’s relationship with Rokeby and her father’s relationship with his celebrity daughter and her fortune. Again, Rowling’s care with names makes the ‘Peter’ connection hard to overlook or dismiss out of hand or even out of charity. She’s pointing to the connection. If Gillespie turns out to be the murderer of Leda Strike as some Serious Strikers want to believe, the Peter Pettigrew-Gillespie-Rowling connection will be complete. See ‘Who Killed Leda Strike? Peter Gillespie’ for more on that possibility.

But there’s more Bad Dad action in Troubled Blood that has a Peter Rowling shadow buried in it. Can you say “Roy Phipps”?

We’ll start with the year of Margot Bamborough’s disappearance, 1974. That is the year in which the young Rowling family moves to Church Cottage in Tutshill. Rowling has said she likes to choose dates that are meaningful in her life for events in her novels that correspond with that event. If 1974 is a link, it will be the first time she has chosen a year rather than a calendar day for the connection.

Both Roy and his second wife Cynthia declare with no little fervor that there was “nothing going on” between them for four years after Margot’s disappearance. The Bayliss sisters testify, though, that the predictable rumors were based on something other than ill-will:

“There was one sticky moment,” said Porschia, “remember, M? When Dr. Bamborough asked us all over to a barbecue at her house?” She turned to Robin. “We couldn’t go, because Dr. Bamborough’s nanny would’ve realized Mum wasn’t the woman turning up once a week to clean. My Auntie Carmen didn’t like that nanny,” Porschia added. “Didn’t like her at all.”

“Why was that?” asked Strike.

“She thought the girl was after Dr. Bamborough’s husband. Went red every time she said his name, apparently.”

Oonaugh Kennedy, too, tells Strike there was something going on between Roy and Cynthia:

“Roy had other people interested in him, girls from his own background. He was a pretty boy with a lot of family money. Well,” said Oonagh, “look at little cousin Cynthia, lurking in the wings.”

“Did you know Cynthia?” asked Robin.

“Met her once or twice, at their house. Mousy little thing. She never spoke more than two words to me,” said Oonagh. “But she made Roy feel good about himself. Laughing loike a drain at all his jokes. Such as they were.”

Brian Tucker also thought Roy Phipps was, if not happy because of his wife’s departure, not paralyzed by grief either:

And my mate got hold of this and smuggled it out to me. I’ve never been able to admit to having it, because both of us would be in trouble if it got out, but I called up Margot Bamborough’s husband, what was his name—”

“Roy Phipps.”

“Roy Phipps, yeah. I said, ‘I’ve got a bit of Creed’s writing here you’re going to want to see. It proves he killed your wife.’” A contemptuous smile revealed Tucker’s toffee-brown teeth again.

“But he didn’t want to know,” said Tucker. “Phipps thought I was a crank. A year after I called him, I read in the paper he’d married the nanny. Creed did Dr. Phipps a good turn, it seems.”

“Grandad!” said Lauren, shocked.

“All right, all right,” muttered Tucker. “I never liked that doctor. He could’ve done us a lot of good, if he’d wanted to. Hospital consultant, he was the kind of man the Home Secretary would’ve listened to. We could’ve kept up the pressure if he’d helped us, but he wasn’t interested, and when I saw he was off with the nanny I thought, ah, right, everything’s explained.”

And the wild Hermes figure, Roy Oakden?

“Bamborough didn’t look after her own kid,” said Oakden, his eyes again darting to the entrance and back to Strike, “didn’t fuck her own husband, from what I heard, he was nearly always too ill to perform. He had plenty of cash though, so she gets a nanny and goes lording it over men at work.”

Roy Phipps’ confession at Broom House that he was “cruel” to his wife and that he “drove her away,” that he was undeserving of his own daughter’s sympathy because he all but killed her, suggests, too, that he was unhappy in his marriage. Into all those testimonies, now mix in Robin’s psychic perceptions in Troubled Blood’s penultimate chapter of what would have happened if Margot had not “disappeared.” Margot would have divorced Roy and taken their daughter and Cynthia with her, a departure that would have ship-wrecked Roy with his mother.

Roy’s smile, Robin noticed, was nervous and a little fixed. What did it feel like, she wondered, to be face to face with his dead wife’s best friend, after all these years? Did the physical changes in Oonagh make him wonder what Margot would have looked like, had she lived to the age of seventy? Or was he wondering anew, as he must have done over all the intervening years, whether his marriage would have survived the long stretch of icy silence that had followed her drink with Paul Satchwell, whether the strains and tensions in the relationship could have been overcome, or whether Margot would have taken Oonagh up on her offer of refuge in her flat?

They’d have divorced, Robin thought, with absolute certainty, but then she wondered whether she wasn’t tangling up Margot with herself, as she’d tended to do all through the case….

Was it wonderful for Cynthia, Robin wondered, as Anna’s stepmother pulled up a chair, and she declined a piece of the cake which, it transpired, Oonagh had gone out in the rain to purchase. How did it feel to have Margot Bamborough back, even in the form of a skeleton in a box? Did it hurt to see her husband so shaken and emotional, and to have to receive Oonagh, Margot’s best friend, into the heart of the family, like a newly discovered aunt?

Robin, who seemed to be on something of a clairvoyant streak, felt sure that if Margot had never been killed, but had simply divorced Roy, Cynthia would never have been the hematologist’s choice of second wife. Margot would probably have begged the young Cynthia to accompany her into her new life, and continue looking after Anna. Would Cynthia have agreed, or would her loyalties have lain with Roy? Where would she have gone, and who would she have married, once there was no place for her at Broom House?

The lady in Rowling’s Lake of inspiration serves up another helping of Peter Rowling’s shacking up with the secretary, a woman who leaves husband and sons to be with her lover, months after Anne Rowling’s death. The denials that Peter made of anything happening between for them for at least a year are almost in the exact words of Cynthia’s denials of her being in relationship with Roy until years and years had passed since Margot’s disappearance.

Everyone else in Troubled Blood, however, to include the ghost of Margot Bamborough whom Robin is channeling throughout the book, doesn’t buy it. Oakden, the unpleasant truth-teller, says the marriage was without sex and all the voices of those who knew the players testify that Cynthia was in love with Roy and standing by for her opening. If Anna heard those voices, would she, who suspected her father and step-mother herself when she was a teen-ager, have the same response that Dianne and Joanne Rowling did in the years after their mother’s death?

Of course Roy was not violent and there is no suggestion that Anna was “very frightened of my father for a very long time.” The echo and shadow of Rowling’s father-crisis and unresolved issues, though, pervade Broom House and the untold story beneath the surface Rowling-Galbraith tells more by suggestion than via an in-your-face transparency like Casual Vacancy’s Simon Price.

[If you doubt that the Pagsford Prices are meant to be stand-ins for the Tutshill Rowling’s, roll back the YouTube video above to 4:15 to learn that Rowling was supposed to have been a boy, one named ‘Simon John,’ the preference of her disappointed father. ‘Simon’ is the given name, of course, of St Peter. The boy was to be named for the Rowling father just as both of the girls wound up with their mother’s embedded name.]

Why Serious Strikers Should Care

I admit that writing all this up has given me a gossipy, sleazy feeling. Rowling’s family life before her marriage to Dr. Neil Murray, except for her relationship with her sister is pretty much a train wreck. Her mother dies of a horrific degenerative disease, dad is a man of whom she was “very frightened” “for a very long time,” there’s a lot of smoke around the man’s second marriage that suggests infidelity-fire on the part of one if not two of the new partners, and Rowling’s first marriage is to a man that beats her, and, if her testimony this summer is all about him (the essay is ambiguous), strangles her near to death. She leaves another man, this one not her father, of whom she had every reason to be “very frightened” “for a very long time” and she is still PTSD. That’s all very sad, I’m happy it turned out well for her, and it’s none of my business.

Except, on Rowling’s Lake and Shed terms, it is the business of her serious readers. The “exteriorization” of Rowling’s interior conflicts with her father that become what Wolosky calls “psychological allegories” in her work are the “stuff” given to her by the Lake subconscious dealing with these issues, inspirations she shapes in the Shed into engaging, transformative story. Ignoring the Bad Dads and other Pathetic Peter-Pater Shadows in her work would be akin, after the Lake and Shed discussion, to overlooking or disregarding the mythological elements, alchemical symbolism, or ring composition of her writing; it is one of the important elements in her work. The crises are foundational building blocks in the inspiration of her stories.

What I want to avoid doing is focusing on these building block shadows as if they were the end-game substance of her writing, the artistry and meaning of her work. Most of the artistry I think we can assume happens in the Shed and her literary craftsmanship. The meaning is what she chooses to make in her artistry out of the inspiration. The great mistake of psycho-biographical reading is thinking the job is done after drawing the parallels between real-life and written fiction. That is the easy part and only the beginning of any exegesis; now that the correspondence is clear, what has Rowling made of her Papa Peter crisis?

As a beginning of an answer, I suggest we look both at Harry Potter’s relationship with Dumbledore and at Cormoran Strike’s with immaterial reality as well as Jonny Rokeby.

I have discussed at some length — see Deathly Hallows Lectureshow Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the story of the Chosen One’s struggle to believe in God. Harry Potter is a Christian Everyman and dead Albus Dumbledore is the Old Man with a Long White Beard above the Clouds that non-believers imagine Christians believe is God the Father (hint: we don’t). Harry’s journey in Hallows and, overcoming his doubts, his decision in Dobby’s grave on Easter morning to pursue Horcruxes not Hallows per Dumbledore’s direction is the Morality Tale of a postmodern person’s journey to faith in God, a journey that must pass through feelings of betrayal and skeptical thoughts. Rowling here has transformed her individual ‘daddy drama’ with Peter Rowling, a father she cannot trust or believe in, into an edifying, even transformative imaginative experience of the almost universal struggle all thinking people of our time have in seeking communion with the transcendent God, ‘the Father.’

Cormoran Strike has no relationship with his biological father, Zeus the heavenly swan to his mother’s Leda. He hates the very idea of his superstar father and refuses all outreach from him. At the same time, Strike considers himself with respect to all things religious and immaterial a proud member of what he calls ‘Team Reality,’ the hallmark of which is disdainful rejection of any idea of invisible psychic and spiritual realities. Part of this, as Louise Freeman has all but demonstrated, is due to childhood trauma in the Norfolk Commune Strike remembers as the worst experience of his life. But that would only be part of it.

I think Rowling is writing a second Potter-Dumbledore story Mystery Play with Strike-Rokeby as the lead figures, Cormoran as the Postmodern Everyman and Rokeby as Rock-Star Zeus-Deus. Just as Potter’s working his way through his doubts about Dumbledore-as-God-the-Negligent-Father ends in his acting in faith and obedience at the end of Deathly Hallows, so we will Strike come to terms with his uncanny and other-worldly father and in that transformation simultaneously come to some appreciation of the immaterial, invisible, and interior aspects of the multi-dimensional world in which he lives and the people, living and dead, all around him.

Our relationships with our biological fathers and father figures as often as not are mirror image reflections of our relationship with the Absolute, a beyond being Reality known as ‘the Father’ because of the relatively distant relationship of children to fathers compared to mothers. Rowling-Galbraith gets this — and succeeded at least in her Hogwarts Saga in using the Lake “stuff” about Peter Rowling to write this much larger, almost universal struggle in story form for our interior Lakes to struggle with.

That’s a lot for one post. To guide discussion, here are three questions I hope you’ll consider sharing your answers to in the comment boxes below:

(1) Where have I missed the mark in what I have written about Rowling’s relationship with her father, the “exteriorizations” in story form of this conflict embedded in Harry Potter, Casual Vacancy, and Cormoran Strike?

(2) Is the Peter Rowling backdrop in Troubled Blood as important as I suggest? What counter-evidence or further supporting evidence have I missed?

(3) I offer an answer to the ‘So What?’ question you should ask any literary critic who draws parallels between an author’s life and his or her stories, an answer that says ‘Rowling in her Shed recognizes the inspiration of her stories for what they are and transforms them from individual issues to universal parables.” Do you think I’m right or wrong?

Let me know what you think.


  1. Bonni Crawford says

    “Go ahead and name the positive depictions of fathers in the first five Strike novels.”
    I did as instructed and my first thought was also “Michael Ellacott” but then I thought…while he’s certainly a gentle and kindly man, he seems rather uninvolved and… ineffective? ‘Ineffective’ is not quite the right word but what I’m getting at is, when has Micheal ever phoned Robin? Or even text-messaged her? While she’s physically present in the family home he casts her an occasional “everything alright, love?” But that seems to be about the extent of it. If he has any insight into the way other family members’ behaviours make Robin feel stifled and un-seen/misunderstood, he doesn’t appear to do anything about it. So, while he seems a nice enough person and is not actively a bad father, he doesn’t – from my perspective – really fit the bill for an actively good father either. Of course, it might just be that he has little relevance to the story and so is given minimal screen time, like Hermione’s parents. But he was physically present in the house over Christmas in Troubled Blood and didn’t seem to actively try to connect with his daughter – unless you count him asking if everything was alright following her clearly angry and distressed phone conversation with Slimy Saul Morris in the garden.

  2. Louise Freeman says

    Any thoughts on the father’s in the Ickabog? They seem a decent bunch, at least as far as Daisy’s and Bert’s go. Most of the baddies in that volume don’t have kids.

  3. Must be a Fairy Tale genre requirement to have good dads!

  4. A few disconnected thoughts:

    –With your focus on Peter Rowling and his second marriage and presumption of an affair with his secretary, I wonder that you didn’t remark that Janet is a name awfully similar to Janice–or that Robin really hates being referred to as Strike’s secretary!

    –Since you acknowledge JKR’s use of her father’s name in her two series, do you have any thoughts on using a close variation of her mother’s name as the character Anna in Troubled Blood?

    –What do you make of the fact that the two primary Bad Dads in Troubled Blood, Phipps and Rokeby, both have prostate cancer?

    –Since you emphasize the only two Peters (Pettigrew in HP and Gillespie in Strike) and their connection to stronger, more powerful people, I wonder if Peter Rowling’s biography shows a history of this kind of behavior, too?

    –Your suggestion that Peter Gillespie is to Jonny Rokeby as Peter Rowling is to JK Rowling throws an interesting monkey wrench into the role Rokeby will eventually play. Most of what you write suggests that Strike/Rokeby will have parallels to Harry/Dumbledore, and from there to Everyman/God the Father. I hope you will post your thoughts on how this might play out in future books. On the other hand, if Rokeby is in some sense JK Rowling, the outcome will have to be quite different. Previous theories posted on this site insert another monkey wrench by suggesting that Rokeby is actually no relation to Strike and only admitted paternity and paid child support as part of a blackmail scheme. This is a glorious mess that I look forward to examining more closely!

    –A minor correction: Rokeby does not withhold money from Strike. While Strike was in Selly Oak and again after he got out, Rokeby offers the child support money to his son free and clear. It was Strike who insisted on making it a loan.

    Thanks for this terrific website. Always thought-provoking and insightful!

  5. The whole Strike series began with the search for a father. The trigger to the events of Cuckoo’s Calling was Lula’s search for her father which resulted in her decision to write a will leaving everything to her newly discovered brother.

    One of the inconsistencies in the Strike books concerns the money Strike borrowed to start the agency. In Silkworm, Al goes to Selly Oak with an offer from Rokeby: “Al had brought with him to Selly Oak an offer from Rokeby that could have been made by mail: financial help in starting Strike’s detective business.” Chap 31

    In Troubled Blood he tells Robin, “Once I was out of Selly Oak, he tried to give me the money again. He’d found out I was trying to start the agency. Charlotte’s friends knew a couple of his kids, which is how he got wind of it.” The “again” refers to the money for university episode, not the offer at Selly Oak.

    I don’t know if this was an oversight or if Rowling is trying to shift the narrative for some reason.

  6. Great catch, Karol Jay! I’d forgotten that Rokeby sent Al with a money offer — important evidence that Rokeby isn’t the Deadbeat perhaps that his bastard son thinks he is. If I were Al, I’d have thrown that in his half-brother’s face during their phone chat in ‘Troubled Blood.’

    More important, I think, though, is your point about the series beginning with Lula’s search for her biological father and family. ‘The Silkworm,’ too, begins with Leonora’s seeking a man’s help to find the gone-missing father of her handicapped daughter. The excerpts from ‘Career of Evil’ that were published before the book were the voice of Donny Laing saying that he was out to avenge the death of his son, i.e., he is a lunatic father seeking revenge. Strike spends much of the third book looking for his step-father, Jeff Whittaker. As noted in the post, ‘Lethal White’ features a patricide and the revelation of Geraint Winn’s failings as husband and father.

    Much has been made — and rightly so — about the importance of violence against women in Rowling’s work. I think we are obliged to elevate ‘Bad Dad’ to an equal status as a theme permeating her novels, especially Cormoran Strike.

  7. So, while [Michael Ellacott] seems a nice enough person and is not actively a bad father, he doesn’t – from my perspective – really fit the bill for an actively good father either.

    I see your point, Bonni Crawford, and agree as far as you go. Note Robin’s reflections in the last chapter, however, about her parents as she opens her birthday gifts:

    Robin felt her luck, these days, at having two loving parents. Her work had taught her how many people weren’t that fortunate, how many people had families that were broken beyond repair, how many adults walked around carrying invisible scars from their earliest childhood, their perceptions and associations forever altered by lack of love, by violence, by cruelty. So she called Linda to thank her, and ended up talking to her mother for over an hour: inconsequential chatter, most of it, but cheering, nevertheless.

    Rowling isn’t setting an impossibly high standard for ‘good dad’ here. She complained at Christmastime when nobody asked about her work and thoughts, and, as you note, Michael is attentive and caring enough that when she loses it with Saul Morris he is right there for her. It’s the absence of a father at all or the presence of a selfish one, not necessarily violent and abusive but even just negligent, she seems to be saying that causes families to be “broken beyond repair” and children to be carrying “invisible scars.”

    Michael Ellacott doesn’t fail this test. Robin believes that Matt Cunliffe, too, for all his failings, will be a good father. I think Rowling’s comment with sister Dianne’s agreement by silence that she was “very frightened for a very long time” by her father makes it undeniable that Peter Rowling was a bad dad, her birth family is broken, and that she carries the invisible scars.

    One of Rowling’s real victories is her solve et coagula recovery from her bad dad and violent first husband experiences and how she has subliminated them into edifying, transformative art. I worry that too much focus on her biography inevitably becomes gossip posturing as literary criticism; her Lake and Shed comments have convinced me that her serious readers must work through the subconscious “stuff” of her inspiration to come to a greater appreciation of the work done in the Shed that changes the individual and isolated into the the universal and alchemical.

  8. Thanks for this terrific website. Always thought-provoking and insightful!

    Thank you, Ricki Lee, for making my day! And for the correction, which Karol Jay made as well.

    Forgive me for only answering one of your questions, the one asking me what I think of Phipps and Rokeby both having prostate cancer.

    I think it is significant, which is to say “meaningful” rather than coincidental or accident.

    Rowling gave Peter Pettigrew the name she did because he is a coward, which is to say a man lacking in the principal masculine virtue of courage, and the name translates to ‘Small Penis’ (‘Peter’ for those of my generation was a euphemism for ‘penis’ and ‘Pettigrew’ — a name to be found in a P. D. James novel if memory serves — means ‘did not grow very large’). His nickname of ‘Wormtail’ nails down that meaning. All of that only to say that Rowling chose to mark the character who was the greatest failure in manliness by embedding in his name a pointer to a uniquely male organ.

    I think we see the same thing in Phipps and Rokeby, the bad dads, as you say, of Troubled Blood. Phipps is doubly indicted, of course, because he is, as he puts it, a “bloody bleeder” unable to properly protect the women in his life. The prostate cancer he and Rokeby both have — and as we have discussed previously, I think, Rockstar Jonny almost certainly has a terminal case — are metaphors for their failings as men in general and as fathers especially.

    Before you ask, yes, I think this applies to Aunt Joan’s ovarian cancer as well. Joan is more than a bit of a shrew, visits and conversations with whom Strike finds painful because of her manipulating him into saying what she wants him to rather than being honest. She is barren with respect to child-bearing and suffers a fatal illness that a man cannot have, a uniquely female condition. I think in Strike6 we will see in Rokeby, that we are already seeing in Strike5 Rokeby, the transformation that Joan’s relatively protracted death brought in her, namely, a repentance of sorts, a taking on of a parent’s proper role in compensation for mistakes of the past.

    It has been something like heresy since the publication of Sonntag’s Illness as Metaphor to discuss physical sickness as a cipher for one’s psychological condition. I disagree with Sonntag’s view — she misunderstands, frankly, what a human being is, i.e., a ghost in the machine versus a psychosomatic unity of flesh and spirit — but, right or wrong in the real world, ‘illness as metaphor’ is something of a rule in better and even not so good fiction.

    Rowling in the cancers of Troubled Blood certainly ‘goes there,’ I think, with the peculairly masculine and feminine cancers she assigns to the shrew on the St Mawes hill and the bad dads in London.

  9. A correspondent who chooses not to be named has given me permission to post these comments sent to me in an email. It turns out that Peter Rowling’s middle name is, wait for it… ‘James.’

    I was noticing the interesting parallel that – as Peter Rowling’s middle name is James –

    a) Rowling gives her father Peter’s names to both good/bad marauders in Harry Potter, but (if we’re being Freudian about this!) that the ‘bad dad’ Peter kills the ‘good dad’ James. Harry’s complex feelings about James in 5 also could play out her feelings about her ‘James’.

    b) Also note Peter Rowling was planning to give his first child not only a Simon pairing first name, but also a James/John pairing as his middle name [Sts. James and John are brothers, the sons of Zebedee]. Jo Rowling mentions in her Terf-wars essay last summer the pressure she felt about her father’s desire for her to be a boy – this strengthens that I think.

    Rowling’s comment in that essay was this:

    The writings of young trans men reveal a group of notably sensitive and clever people. The more of their accounts of gender dysphoria I’ve read, with their insightful descriptions of anxiety, dissociation, eating disorders, self-harm and self-hatred, the more I’ve wondered whether, if I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. The allure of escaping womanhood would have been huge. I struggled with severe OCD as a teenager. If I’d found community and sympathy online that I couldn’t find in my immediate environment, I believe I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.

    Rowling’s “invisible scars” from a father’s disappointment in, even disapproval of her sex at birth show in the “psychological allegory” as Wolosky would put it or “exteriorization” as Beatrice Groves might in The Presence’s stories of the masculine and feminine aspects within men and women. More on that anon.

    Three notes on the James factor —

    (1) I think my correspondent is right-on with the Peter Pettigrew and James Potter Freudian interpretation consequent to the names of both characters coming from dad. I wonder if we won’t be learning much more in Strikes 6 and 7 about the relationship of Peter Gillespie and Jonny Rokeby in parallel fashion given the James/John parallel noted. Hard to overstate the importance of this ‘James’ middle name find.

    (2) The Rowling parents really seem to have had a thing about names, right? The ‘Simon John’ name that echoes ‘Peter James’ is one thing; note the neglected obvious point that both the daughters are named for their mother: Joanne and Dianne. The Presence gets her name-fixation honestly.

    (3) The only other ‘James’ in Rowling’s oeuvre that comes immediately to mind is Jimmy Knight in Lethal White. The best thing that can be said about him is that, having no children, he is not yet a Bad Dad. Then again, brother Billy is Jimmy’s responsibility and he fails profoundly on that count. His disdain for women, evident in his abusive behavior with Flick Perdue, marks him as first class loser as well.

    Post: See comment below in which it is revealed that Peter Rowling’s middle name is not ‘James’ but ‘John.’

  10. Some random thoughts on the Dad-Daughter aspects in particular…
    We have a 17 year old son, and 14 year old daughter. My son has very similar interests to me; cars, motorcycles, guitars, etc. Yet, while we share common interests, he talks more to his Mom – similar to what I recall growing up – Mom easier to talk to/closer relationship (My Dad was a clinical psychologist, no less!). Our daughter talks with her Mom, but her relationship to me is more open/more connected. They butt heads a bit, but she and I seem to be co-conspirators/partners. When its a difficult/deep subject, I’m usually the one she comes to. For me, Robin’s Dad seems odd/aloof – very different to the relationship I have with our daughter. But, maybe that makes sense for JKR, as she had a bad example of a father.
    On the father-daughter subject; there’s a really interesting (to me at least!) song by Carrie Underwood that probably has never been played on the radio. Carrie & her husband have never been shy about their Christian faith. The song is called “Girl you think I am”, written for her Father.The chorus changes slightly each verse but says very similar things. The second chorus goes “‘Cause you think I’m brave, and you think I’m beautiful. You think that I can do the impossible. You always see the best in me when I can’t. I wanna be the girl you think I am.” It seems Carrie had a very good Father figure growing up, or she has imbued her Christian faith’s version of a good Father into this song – If we could see and understand how and what God sees in us…Maybe we would understand our real value to Him, and why He did all He did for us!

  11. Thank you, MikeG!

    Two quick notes:

    (1) I have heard that song on the radio! That I live in Oklahoma and drive past a sign every time I drive east to Arkansas and back that proclaims Checotah is her hometown may have something to do with the radio song-selections. Regardless, this song makes in its way, you’re right, exactly the point I think Rowling is trying to make with her Bad Dad agonies embedded in the novels.

    (2) I have learned tonight from another correspondent who would rather not post but who has shared with me the indisputable public record documentary evidence of the assertion made that Peter Rowling’s middle name is not James, but John. So…

    Everything above about Harry’s father being named obliquely for Rowling’s dad? Wrong. Jimmy Knight? Nope, no relation by name with Peter Rowling.

    Everything about Peter Rowling wanting to name his first child ‘Simon John’ after himself? Even more spot on.

    And, much more important, Jonny Rokeby the Bad Dads of All Bad Dads in the Strike series, with his accomplice Peter Gillespie, has to be read at least in part as a Lake inspiration concerning Rowling-Galbraith’s resolved or unresolved or being resolved issues about her father Peter John.

    Stay tuned!

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