In the Harry Potter fandom, Petunia Dursley gives way to much speculation: perhaps there is more to her than what is seen at first glance, that perhaps Petunia is hiding a secret from not only Harry, but her husband and son as well, and I believe that Petunia’s deep, dark secret is that she loved her sister Lily.
Yes, I know that Petunia has never spoken a good word about her sister, but then, she’s only ever said two things about her sister to which we were privy. The first scene was in Book One, when Harry first learns he is a wizard. The underlined emphasis is mine.
”How could you not be, my dratted sister being what she was? Oh, she got a letter just like that and disappeared of to that–that school–and came home every vacation with her pockets full of frog spawn, turning teacups into rats. I was the only one who saw her for what she wasa freak! But for my mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the family!” She stopped to draw a deep breath and then went ranting on. It seemed she had been wanting to say all this for years. ”Then she met that Potter at school and they left and got married and had you, and of course I knew you’d be just the same, just as strange, just as–as–abnormal–and then, if you please, she went and got herself blown up and we got landed with you!”
(pg. 53 SS; US edition, paperback)
The first, say, ten times I read these lines, I simply thought that clearly Petunia was jealous of her sister, who appears to have won the praise of her parents, and Petunia didn’t receive the same praise as Lily. But what if it wasn’t just jealousy? I’m sure that part of Petunia was jealous, but maybe not in the way I originally imagined.
Imagine that before Lily found out she was a witch, she and Petunia were close, perhaps even best friends (especially if they were close in age). Then one day Lily Evans receives a letter, an acceptance to Hogwarts and Petunia loses her sister for nearly ten months of the year. Maybe at first Petunia is happy for her sister, after all, as a child, what sounds like more fun than learning to do magic? There was a small speck of jealousy in Petunia, but she loves her sister and doesn’t show it as the two hug and say goodbye at King’s Cross as Lily leaves for her first year. Lily returns home for Christmas break and summer break, and has incredible stories to tell. Petunia listens and laughs with her sister as Lily tells funny stories from school and possibly as she complains about that arrogant James Potter.
Lily goes away for a second year, and Petunia wishes she could go too. Lily returns at Christmas again and once again during the summer. But there are some slight changes. This year Lily hangs out less with Petunia. She goes off and spends a few weeks with her new best friend from that school and spends more time writing to her school friends. Petunia, who was never as good at making friends as Lily, is left at home alone more often, as she watches her former best friend leaving her behind.
Lily leaves for her third year, and is so excited to return that she gives her sister a hurried goodbye. She returns for Christmas and Petunia’s reception is a little frostier than usual. But teenagers will be moody, and Lily shrugs it off. Then Lily returns for the summer, or parts of it because again she spends time away with her friends from school. Petunia gets to spend even less time with her sister than the previous summer and becomes snippy with Lily, and the worst part is that Lily, so preoccupied with her new friends, doesn’t seem to notice. But the two sisters still share a few laughs and Petunia tries not to let it get to her too much.
As the years pass, however, the distance between them grows. Until, during Lily’s seventh year, she decides not to come home for Christmas at all. She wants to stay at school because her new boyfriend, that Potter boy she used to complain about so much is staying, and she wants to be with him. Petunia grows farther and farther apart from Lily as the two of them age into adulthood. At some point the two of them lose their parents. (In the OotP, Dumbledore tells Harry that Petunia is his only remaining relative, so at some point their parents must have died.) Petunia meets a man named Vernon Dursley, who shows interest in her. Petunia, not being the most attractive woman, nor being good at meeting new people, agrees to date him. He proposes to her and Petunia, convinced that no other man would want her and not wanting to be alone, accepts. The two get married. Around the same time, Lily also marries James Potter.
Now the only contact she has with her sister is an occasional letter and the even less occasional visit. At first, Petunia tries to hide the fact that her sister is a witch from her husband, who does not approve of anything that he doesn’t consider ”normal.” But, unfortunately, one day he finds out and he is disgusted. Petunia, fearful of losing the one person who seems to still care about her, pretends to be disgusted as well.
And soon she isn’t pretending anymore. She hates that horrible school, and community, and especially that Potter, all of which have taken her sister away from her. She gives birth to her son, and dotes on him because she never wants him to leave her the way Lily did. She hears the news; her sister has had a son as well. And any possibility of Lily coming back to her normal life and her sister seems to have died. Because now she has something that forever and permanently connects her to James Potter and the wizarding world: a child.
Petunia, who once knew everything that was happening in the wizarding world (well, what her sister knew anyway) knew that there was a dangerous wizard arising. And although she admits nothing to her husband, she worries about her sister’s safety. Then, one day, she receives an odd letter from a man by the name of Albus Dumbledore, who informs her that her sister will no longer be able to contact her because Lily’s life is in danger, and she does not wish to endanger her sister’s family as well. Dumbledore keeps Petunia up-to-date on what he can about her sister. Petunia occasionally writes back, because she fears that if she doesn’t, this Dumbledore will quit writing her to let her know her sister is alive and well.
“We have corresponded of course.”
Harry thought this was an odd way of reminding Aunt Petunia that he had once set her an exploding letter, but Aunt Petunia did not challenge the term.
(pg 46, HBP US edition, hardback)
Indeed, Harry is right, that would be an odd way of referring to one three word Howler. It is unlikely that this kind of contact is what Dumbledore was referring to. In fact, the term corresponded seems to indicate that Petunia didn’t just receive letters from Dumbledore, but sent them as well. The Howler that Aunt Petunia received in OotP, that said, “Remember my last,” is referring to the letter Dumbledore left with Harry on the doorstep when he was a baby. This indicates that Petunia was in contact with Dumbledore before Lily died and the Dursleys took Harry in.
Petunia does not share any of this with her husband. Then one day, as she is setting out the milk bottles she is very startled to find a baby on the front step and with that baby is a letter from Dumbledore. How much did Dumbledore tell her? Dumbledore says in PS/SS that he’s written them a letter. Did Vernon read this letter, or did Petunia just paraphrase it for him, so that she didn’t give away that she was still in contact with one of those freaks? Does she know why Voldemort went after her sister?
In OotP Dumbledore has this exchange with Harry:
“ Your mother died to save you. She gave you a lingering protection he never expected, a protection that flows in your veins to this day. I put my trust, therefore, in your mother’s blood. I delivered you to her sister, her only remaining relative.”“She doesn’t love me,” said Harry at once. ”She doesn’t give a damn–“
”But she took you,” Dumbledore cut across him. “She may have taken you grudgingly, furiously, unwillingly, bitterly, yet still she took you, and in doing so, she sealed the charm I placed upon you. Your mother’s sacrifice made the bond the strongest shield I could give you.
”While you can still call home the place where your mother’s blood dwells, there you cannot be touched or harmed by Voldemort. He shed her blood, but it lives on in you and her sister. Her blood became your refuge. You need return there only once a year, but as long as you can still call it home, there he cannot hurt you. Your aunt knows this. I explained what I had done in a letter I left, with you, on her doorstep. She knows that allowing you houseroom may well have kept you alive for the past fifteen years.”
If she knows that Voldemort’s goal was to kill Harry, is it possible she blames Harry for her sister’s death? Is this part of the reason she treats Harry this way, and allows her husband and son to do the same? Harry symbolizes the loss of her sister.
The only other time that Petunia directly refers to her sister is in Order of the Phoenix, when she accidentally lets it slips that she knows that Dementors guard the wizard prison, Azkaban. After a moment in which every one in the room is shocked: ”Aunt Petunia looked quite appalled with herself. She glanced at Uncle Vernon in fearful apology” and then Petunia says that she heard ”that awful boy” telling her about them? But is that what really happened? Is this perhaps a smokescreen because she doesn’t want to admit that she used to listen with interest when Lily told her about the wizarding world? Perhaps it was Lily herself that told Petunia that the Dementors guarded the wizard prison Azkaban. Harry is surprised that Petunia was able to remember this particular piece of information about the wizarding world, but perhaps she does know more than she admits. Maybe she simply chooses to appear ignorant about the wizarding world, but is not nearly as uninformed as she appears to be. She seems to be concerned about how her husband will respond to the fact that she knew about Dementors. This supports my theory that part of the reason Petunia acts so disgusted with the wizarding world is that she is afraid she might lose her husband.
There was another interesting moment between Harry in Petunia in that same chapter of OotP:
”Back?” whispered Aunt Petunia. She was looking at Harry as she had never looked at him before. And all of a sudden, for the very first time in his life, Harry fully appreciated that Aunt Petunia was his mother’s sister. He could not have said why this hit him so very powerfully at this moment. All he knew was that he was not the only person in the room who had an inkling of what Lord Voldemort being back might mean. Aunt Petunia had never in her life looked at him like that before. Her large, pale eyes (so unlike her sister’s) were not narrowed in dislike or anger: They were wide and fearful.The furious pretense that Aunt Petunia had maintained all Harry’s life–that there was no magic and no world other than the world she inhabited with Uncle Vernon–seemed to have fallen away.
Could this have been the one time that Petunia let down her walls? Upon hearing that her sister’s murderer is not gone like she believed, does she for a few moments forget that she’s supposed to hate her sister and, for a few seconds, remembers how much she loved Lily?
The last time we saw Petunia, she was sitting on a couch with her husband and son, listening to Dumbledore who asks that Harry be allowed to return to the house once more so that the protection on him lasts until his seventeenth birthday. Aunt Petunia is described as being ”oddly flushed.” What could this indicate? For sixteen years Petunia has treated her nephew like dirt; perhaps taking out all of her anger at her sister, James Potter, and the wizarding world in general. But Harry is still there, the last reminder of her sister (for it is mentioned in PS/SS on page 30, paperback edition US, that there are no photographs of his parents in the house). Perhaps she is just now realizing that soon Harry will be gone, and she will have nothing left of her sister, Lily.