Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The House of Mitford and the House of Black

As I mentioned, when I was up in Oregon last month, I holed up for several days at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. For my first four nights, I stayed in the Virginia Woolf room, which had a kind of French Provincial décor modeled after Woolf's country house, and on my last night I moved to the J. K. Rowling room. I worried that this room might feel too cartoonish and juvenile, but I actually LOVED it: it had a cozy canopy bed with red satin curtains, a beautiful antique drop-front desk, and plenty of memorabilia to make you feel like you're in Gryffindor Tower. I quickly got into the spirit of things, saying "Hello, Hedwig" to the plush snowy owl in its cage, and waving Hermione Granger's wand around while saying "Expecto Patronum!"

I also started re-reading Book 7 of Harry Potter, which I hadn't read since it came out. (Here's my post from August 2007 about my history with the Harry Potter series and my first impressions of Book 7.) At the same time, I was re-reading Hons and Rebels, Jessica Mitford's autobiography. (I first read it in May 2008.) I'd brought it to the coast with me because I sensed that on my Reading/Writing/Thinking retreat, it might be inspiring to read about a courageous, funny, rebellious woman. I also liked the connection that Jessica Mitford is J.K. Rowling's personal heroine (she named her first daughter "Jessica" in her honor).

Indeed, as I simultaneously re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Hons and Rebels, I spotted a detail in Rowling's book that I'm convinced was drawn from Mitford's. In the prologue to Hons and Rebels, Mitford writes, memorably, "In the windows [of my mother's house], still to be seen, are swastikas carved into the glass with a diamond ring, and for every swastika a carefully delineated hammer and sickle. They were put there by my sister Unity and myself when we were children." Later, she describes the room that she and Unity shared -- divided exactly down the middle, one half of it filled with Unity's Fascist memorabilia and literature, and the other half with Jessica's Communist stuff.

I couldn't help thinking of this when I got to Chapter 10 of Deathly Hallows, which describes the teenage bedrooms of Sirius Black and his brother Regulus at Grimmauld Place: "Sirius seemed to have gone out of his way to annoy his parents. There were several large Gryffindor banners, faded scarlet and gold, just to underline his difference from all the rest of the Slytherin family. There were many pictures of Muggle motorcycles, and also (Harry had to admire Sirius's nerve) several posters of bikini-clad Muggle girls." Meanwhile, "[though] Sirius had sought to advertise his difference from the rest of the family, Regulus had striven to emphasize the opposite. The Slytherin colors of emerald and silver were everywhere, draping the bed, the walls, and the windows. The Black family crest was painstakingly painted over the bed, along with its motto, Toujours Pur."

I need hardly point out that there's a connection between the Toujours Pur motto, Voldemort's ideas of magical blood purity, and Nazi racial ideology; nor that Gryffindor's colors, like Soviet Russia's, are scarlet and gold. In the scheme of the novel, Sirius Black basically is Jessica Mitford, and his cousins Bellatrix and Narcissa are basically Unity and Diana Mitford. (Bellatrix and Unity = mentally unstable, with a twisted, unrequited love for the Big Villain; Narcissa and Diana = beautiful cool blondes, married to the Big Villain's loyal lieutenant.)

It seems so obvious now, but I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't been re-reading Mitford and Rowling's books simultaneously -- in a canopy bed in a simulacrum of Gryffindor Tower.

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