JK Rowling: A Biography

Saturday 6 October, 2001

The eyes which stare from her photographs still speak of hurt, even though now she is the richest woman of English letters, surpassing her great heroine, Jane Austen in both wealth and fame. JK Rowling is a woman who has it all, yet still suffers for her art.

Her millions of devotees, Harry's youngest fans apart, might feel they have travelled the restless, often unhappy journey from Forest of Dean semi to Edinburgh mansion with Joanne Rowling - so why bother with a biography? Surely we know her story well enough by now?

So I thought, until I opened Sean Smith's captivating tale of the publishing world's biggest-ever phenomenon. By the time I had finished the first chapter I had entered a world so very, very different from Harry Potter, yet with such strong links to it, that I was forced to read the book in one sitting. As I put it down I was left with the feeling that if I ever met Joanne Rowling, my first urge would be to comfort her for the ills she has suffered, not congratulate her on the riches.

The story of a modest upbringing, her mother's early death from multiple sclerosis, and the rudderless journey which followed, from university to a drab series of featureless and futureless jobs, seems a meandering path of Rowling's colossal focus. But in those dark pre-Harry days, Joanne was a woman who left no footprints - she hid from the world, and the world allowed her to do so.

Poverty and melancholy haunt the early chapters. During the unhappiest part of her life, when she was teaching in Portugal, one witness in Sean Smith's admirably-researched story described Joanne as 'unfulfilled...desperate for love.' Her flight from the hellish exile she made for herself - a dead-end job and an abusive Portuguese husband - brought her no closer to fame and fortune.

She returned to a life of poverty in Edinburgh, warmed only by the bright light of hope which flickered over her schoolboy creation.

Slowly, over many years, Harry started to take shape, but there was no overnight success. His arrival on the bookstalls was the result of a long period of gestation through an age where children had no mobile phones or McDonalds to distract them. With Harry Potter, Rowling brought her own childhood and its values of morality, justice and accountability to a new generation.

Somehow the public senses this quality as they buy - and buy they do. In the UK alone, so many Harry Potter books have been sold that if shared out equally, every man, woman and child in the whole nation would each own two of them. Joanne Rowling is a writing superstar whose phenomenal and instant success was, says Sean Smith, like the early days of the Beatles. By 1997 the JK phenomenon had begun, by 1999 she was a millionairess, by 2000 the recipient of an OBE, and by 2001 a woman worth �100 million.

All this is covered absorbingly in Smith's book, and while every Harry Potter fan will wish to discover the hidden details of their heroine's life, what makes this book outstanding is how Smith has tracked down the sources of JK's inspiration, from childhood friends to university experiences, and identified them in their changed guises in the Harry Potter books. JK Rowling has weaved her eventful life into her stories, and with this biography as a guide, we can understand the greater depths these amusing and lasting tales contain.