Austen and Harry Potter: Privet Drive was Privet Drive; Hogwarts was home: Harry, Austen Heroines and Home Part two

By Beatrice Groves


Jane Austen


One of the satisfying gender reversals of the Austenian links with Harry Potter is that while Hermione parallels Austen’s feistiest heroines (Emma and Elizabeth Bennet), the series’ hero is most clearly aligned with Austen’s most youthfully innocent or passive heroines: Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey and Fanny in Mansfield Park. For example, in Chamber of Secrets, there seems to be a direct allusion to a scene in Northanger Abbey in which Catherine makes a social faux pas, attempts to apologize for it (despite her innocence), and meets with an unmerited rebuff.

Catherine, tricked by the Thorpes into an unwitting rudeness towards the Tilneys, suffers a sleepless night at the thought of what they must (unjustly) think of her, and hastens to explain herself the next morning proclaiming to her friend Mrs Allen ‘I shall not be easy till I have explained everything.’ She rushes to make her explanation to Miss Tilney but meets with a painful rebuff when her friend refuses to admit her. In Chamber of Secrets, Harry is likewise tricked into transgressing an unknown social code when Snape’s ruse leads to him speaking Parseltongue. Like Catherine, he sleeps badly as a result (even though he knows he has done nothing wrong) and hastens to clear his name the next morning, likewise encouraged by his friend: ‘For heaven’s sake, Harry… Go and find Justin if it’s so important to you.’ Like Catherine, Harry – although in truth the injured party – is willing to make himself vulnerable, rather than retreat into injured innocence, in order to explain the situation but, just as Catherine does, Harry finds his friend is hiding away from him.

In this parallel, Harry echoes the discomfort of Catherine – Austen’s youngest, most morally innocent heroine – likewise finding himself misunderstood, likewise willing to explain his innocence to the person who unjustly doubts him and likewise (apparently) disbelieves. It is a small moment, but Austen is critiquing the self-important heroines of Gothic novels who allow misunderstandings to fester by standing on the ceremony of their injured innocence. Harry Potter, like Austen, celebrates instead the vulnerability of their open-hearted protagonist but acknowledges that such honest vulnerability may lead (at least temporarily) to the dangers of social isolation in the face of society’s desire to police and condemn.

Along with Catherine, Harry’s most obvious Austenian parallel is Fanny in Mansfield Park. Harry shares her unfashionable virtues of ‘stoicism and of humility’ and is, as Karin E. Westman has argued, like her a ‘moral presence who watches and listens… a center of non-energy.’  (Karin E. Westman, ‘Perspective, Memory, and Moral Authority: The Legacy of Jane Austen in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter,’ Children’s Literature 35 (2007): 152-53.) In particular, Fanny’s helpless suffering at the hands of her Aunt Norris is echoed in the power Aunt Petunia holds over Harry. One specific parallel lies in the enthusiasm with which both aunts choose for their niece/nephew the smallest room in the house (and for more on these parallels see my essay in Cecilia Konchar Farr’s recent anthology Open at the Close: Literary Essays on Harry Potter.

Both aunts also make the hero ill by overworking them – and getting them to prune roses – on a hot summer’s day. In Chamber of Secrets Harry gets sunburnt pruning roses (“Harry cleaned the windows, washed the car, mowed the lawn, trimmed the flowerbeds, pruned and watered the roses and re-painted the garden bench. The sun blazed overhead, burning the back of his neck”) in what may be a direct, if unconscious, echo of Fanny’s illness after she has been forced out on a similarly hot day cutting roses and running errands for her aunt: ‘has she been walking as well as cutting roses; walking across the hot park to your house, and doing it twice, ma’am? No wonder her head aches.’

Both Harry and Fanny have a literal home (Privet Drive, Portsmouth) and a true home (Hogwarts, Mansfield) and in another direct connection, they live upon letters when they are marooned among their relations. Harry’s first connection to Hogwarts is made via letters and – perhaps about this – letters from his Hogwarts friends continue as an important feature of his time in Privet Drive (particularly when Dobby keeps them from him in Chamber of Secrets). In Order of the Phoenix, however, these letters provide a direct connection between Fanny marooned in Portsmouth and Harry marooned in Privet Drive. Both of our heroes are only connected to the ‘set where their heart lives’ via letters. Both have three correspondents – Fanny receives letters from Lady Bertram, Edmund, and Miss Crawford, while Harry gets letters from Ron, Hermione, and Sirius (and in both cases, it is only really the louche and worldly-wise third correspondent who honestly acknowledges the hero’s frustration at their situation).

In both cases, our protagonist is trapped in their false home unable to get back to their true home unless one of these letters should announce that someone is coming to pick them up (as Dumbledore will do in Half-Blood Prince). In Order of the Phoenix and Mansfield Park, however, both Harry and Fanny become uncharacteristically angry and despondent on receipt of their longed-for letters, because they continue to fail to hold the promise of rescue. Edmund writes to Fanny:

‘I am sorry to find how many weeks more she [Lady Betram] is likely to be without you. My father means to fetch you himself, but it will not be till after Easter, when he has business in town…’
“I never will, no, I certainly never will wish for a letter again,” was Fanny’s secret declaration as she finished this. “What do they bring but disappointment and sorrow? Not till after Easter! How shall I bear it?

Hermione’s letters to Harry bring a similar lack of satisfaction:

we’ll tell you everything when we see you …
But when were they going to see him? Nobody seemed too bothered with a precise date. Hermione had scribbled I expect we’ll be seeing you quite soon inside his birthday card, but how soon was soon? As far as Harry could tell from the vague hints in their letters, Hermione and Ron were in the same place, presumably at Ron’s parents’ house. He could hardly bear to think of the pair of them having fun at The Burrow when he was stuck in Privet Drive. In fact, he was so angry with them he had thrown away, unopened, the two boxes of Honeydukes chocolates they’d sent him for his birthday.

The disappointed receipt of letters by both protagonists shares a frustrated passivity as each lie marooned among blood relations suffused with longing to return those they love.

Harry and Fanny, as Westman has noted, both ‘experience a Cinderella-like exchange of one home for another’ (Westman, ‘Perspective,’ 152) and their new ‘adoptive’ home becomes, emotionally speaking, their true home. Fanny is sensitive about her slip when she refers to Mansfield Park as ‘home’ when she is in Portsmouth (though her parents, characteristically, do not even notice): ‘Portsmouth was Portsmouth; Mansfield was home.’ For Harry, likewise, Privet Drive was Privet Drive; Hogwarts was home. It is Hogwarts, not the house in which he grew up, which is his true home. Harry is ‘home at last’ when he finally returns to Hogwarts: ‘he was home. Hogwarts was the first and best home he has known.’

Harry Potter shares with Mansfield Park the sense of a home as a place that is loved into being, rather than being simply the place into which you are born. Mansfield Park ends with the Parsonage – once the feared abode of Mrs Norris – becoming Fanny’s home and ‘the Parsonage there, which, under each of its two former owners, Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as everything else within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park had long been.’

The psychological safety of Mansfield for Fanny is what Hogwarts, likewise, holds for Harry. And it is comfort shared with, and extended to, all Harry Potter readers for, as its author has promised, ‘Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.’