Today is twenty years since the first publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and to mark this occasion I’m very cheered to have an interview with Dr. Beatrice Groves about her new book Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. Dr. Groves is Research Lecturer in Renaissance Literature at Oxford, and a fellow of Trinity College, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, which I suspect will be of great interest to a lot of people who read Quite Irregular.
Could you give us an overview of the book, and what a reader can find in it?
Literary Allusion in Harry Potter goes through Rowling’s literary influences in chronological order from Homer and Ovid, through medieval texts such as Chaucer, mystery plays and Gawain, and early modern texts such Shakespeare and Milton, concluding with chapters on Austen, Dickens, Hardy and Tennyson. My aim is to enthuse those who love Harry Potter – from teenagers to older fans – about the literature that has enriched Rowling’s world while also, hopefully, exciting them with some new perspectives on their favourite series.
Harry Potter and literary allusion is a fairly expansive subject – how did you arrange the book? How did you decided what to put in and what to leave out? Are there any bits you didn’t have space for that you wanted to include?
Most of the critical work on Rowling’s literary allusion has looked at her debt to classic children’s and fantasy writing – such as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Elizabeth Goudge, Ursula Le Guin, Dianna Wynne Jones, E. Nesbit and traditional boarding school novels. My plan, therefore, was to look at her influences in more canonical writing. And, yes, there were things – links with Hound of the Baskervilles, P.G. Wodehouse and Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, for example, that didn’t end up fitting with the shape of the book. I am looking forward to discussing these in blogs and talks….
What prompted you to write the book? How does it connect with your other academic work and your personal literary life?
When I read the first books in the series as an undergraduate I was struck by the name of Mrs Norris. I was surprised and pleased to find a children’s book reference Mansfield Park and it set me thinking about other ways Rowling might be drawing on the classics.
In terms of my other literary work, I have always been drawn – from my earliest reading to my current academic work – to the way that readers, writers and book connect with each other. Alberto Manguel calls the process of allusion the way ‘one book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries.’ Hogwarts’ books are an unusually conversational bunch – books in the Restricted Section scream when opened illicitly, Magick Moste Evile wails when it is snapped shut and Riddle’s diary writes back to those who write in it.
These are books that genuinely do ‘call to another unexpectedly’ and when Harry enters Hogwarts’ library at night he hears the books whispering to each other. I felt that this world of talking books is one that it would make sense to look at from an allusive perspective.
Did you have any issues finding a publisher? What was it like working with Routledge on the book?
My belief is that the cross-over aspect of the book is a strength and I hoped that more ‘popular’ publishers might find it enticingly high-brow and more ‘academic’ publishers might find it enticingly mainstream. This wasn’t always a perspective which publishers shared! I was lucky enough, however, to get two simultaneous offers and I went with Routledge for their prestige, publication values and because they were happy to bring it out as a paperback and e-book at a much cheaper price than their usual rate (which I felt was essential to reaching the book’s intended audience). Routledge, and my publisher Polly Dodson, have been really enthusiastic about the project from the beginning and I have found them a very positive press to work with.
Who are you hoping will read the book? What do you think they might get out of it?
I am hoping that everyone who likes Harry Potter and is interested by English literature would enjoy it. My intended audience includes teenagers considering studying English literature at university, undergraduates studying ‘Great Books’ courses in American universities, teachers looking for a ‘bridge’ to engage their students about some of the canonical authors covered, adults who perhaps have not studied English but would have liked to, anyone who hankers after thinking about bit more about literature than their day job allows and, of course, anyone who is a serious fan of the series! Rowling has said that ‘if it is the case that people are moving from Harry to other books then nothing could make me prouder’ and this is book written with that in mind. It is a book that I hope readers will find as enjoyable to read as I found it to write: both for the ‘ah ha!’ moments about the Potter series and for the pointers out into joys of the classical canon.
Where do you think the book sits, in the context of the extensive Harry Potter fan culture, and the scholarly work on Potter?
There have been some great articles on Harry Potter’s links with the literary canon, such as Karin E. Westman’s work on Austen and Lisa Hopkins on its connections with literary heroism, and related books such as Richard A. Spencer’s Harry Potter and the Classical World (2015), Shira Wolosky’s The Riddles of Harry Potter (2010) and David Colbert’s The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter (2001). My work follows on in particular from John Granger’s very enjoyable Harry Potter’s Bookshelf (2009) but is intended for a slightly older readership, looking in-depth a wider range of classic texts.
What is your personal favourite part of the book? What was the process of researching and writing it like? Which part was hardest to write?
I particularly enjoyed writing the Jane Austen chapter. Rowling and I share in a somewhat obsessive love of her novels, and it was great to have the chance to write about Austen, who doesn’t usually fit into my scholarly remit. I also found chapter four, which is about the influence of Christian narratives on the books, particularly enjoyable as it synthesises a number of aspects of my more usual research. And in terms of writing the book – I have done much of my writing in cafes while my sons napped, which had a satisfying circularity to it!
I hadn’t read any of Rowling’s interviews before researching this book, and searching for clues in them (such as the surprising influence of her mother’s maiden name one Voldemort’s name for example) was particularly enjoyable. I’ve never worked on a living author before – the shift from working on someone like Shakespeare to someone who is constantly updating her Twitter-feed was rather surreal!
Researching this book meant listening and reading everything Rowling has put into the public sphere and I have a real admiration for her public persona. You know that famous phrase of Bill Clinton’s that he tried marijuana but didn’t inhale? I feel that Rowling has managed not to ‘inhale’ her celebrity, which is a rare gift. All her interviews, from her first piece of non-fiction writing (in 1998) to now, present someone who is strikingly stable and authentic, both admirable and likable. I also found my favourite Twitter put-down of all time: ‘in the looking-glass world of Twitter, vitriol is so often the tribute inadequacy pays to articulacy.’
What will you be writing next? Will you work on Harry Potter again in the future, do you think?
My next book will be a return to my usual stamping ground in early modern literature – an exploration of the cross-over between psalms and sonnets. I don’t expect to write another book on Harry Potter, but I do have a forthcoming article in English Review on cratylic naming in Rowling and Dickens, and I will hopefully be writing some blog-posts for MuggleNet exploring circles between the first and last Potter novels, and some of the literary links that didn’t make into Literary Allusion in Harry Potter such as those with Sherlock Holmes and some new Shakespeare connections.
NB: Literary Allusion in Harry Potter is 20% off at the Routledge website, with the discount code FLR40: https://www.routledge.com/Literary-Allusion-in-Harry-Potter/Groves/p/book/9781138284678