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Harry Potter and the Panic of 1837

By Tom Anderson


J. K. Rowling’s now-ubiquitous “Harry Potter” series is one of the great British cultural success stories of the twenty-first century (though the first book debuted in 1997). The books re-engaged an entire generation of children in the pursuit of reading and have become a cultural touchstone for that generation as they have grown up; hence the increased invocation of incongruously childish-sounding Potter analogies in politics, just as past generations might have looked to Greek mythology. The books’ remarkable global impact is not merely due to the setting of a magical school—that had been successfully done before without setting the world alight, as in Jill Murphy’s “The Worst Witch” (1974). Rowling achieved a connection with her audience by combining Roald Dahl-like evocative descriptions of bountiful feasts and nasty adoptive families with compelling traditional clue-based mystery plots merely transposed to this fantastic setting. It is small surprise that post-Potter she has written conventional mysteries, the Cormoran Strike series, under the pen name Robert Galbraith.

Of course, like all authors, Rowling was influenced by those who came before her. Let’s now look at one possible sequence of influences down the years, without which “Harry Potter” might not exist—or at least look rather different. It’s time for another chain of consequences!

First, let’s rewind to 160 years before the debut of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. The year 1837 saw a major economic collapse in the United States, the so-called “Panic of 1837”, which—though now typically only discussed by economic historians—devastated the country and countless lives at the time. The causes of the Panic itself are much debated, but include trade consequences of the Opium Wars between Britain and China, liberalisation of banking in Britain in 1826 leading to the growth of dodgy banks-in-name-only in Lancashire that lent to the United States, and President Andrew Jackson’s anti-central bank policies there which left the country’s small banks floundering when the Bank of England decided to raise interest rates. What does this dry topic have to do with Hogwarts? Read on and see.

Frontispiece from "The Wide Wide World", by Elizabeth Wetherell

One consequence of the Panic of 1837 was that a formerly wealthy New York lawyer, a Puritan-descended widower named Henry Warner, lost his fortune and was forced to leave the city for a farmhouse near the military base of West Point. With the family in dire straits, Henry’s two daughters Susan and Anna began writing in order to raise money to support it. Under the pen name ‘Elizabeth Wetherell’, Susan (1819-1885) saw great success with her first novel, “The Wide, Wide World”, published in 1850. Called ‘America’s First Bestseller’, it was the most widely read book of the late nineteenth century by an American author other than “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and was translated into many languages. Though not explicitly a children’s story, “The Wide, Wide World” has a young protagonist, Ellen Montgomery. The book was written with deep Christian themes in mind and in the contemporary ‘sentimental’ and didactic style, which divided opinion among some but the story remained popular (for example, a character in “Little Women” is mentioned to be reading it). Notably Susan had been rejected by many publishers before her manuscript was finally accepted, something which would later happen to J.K. Rowling in her turn.

One of the many young readers inspired by “The Wide, Wide World” was Mary Louisa Stewart (1839-1921), who later married a Crimean War veteran and became Mary Louisa Molesworth. Encouraged to read and write by a clergyman friend named Gaskell, Mary read many books but “The Wide, Wide World” was her favourite. In her own time Mary became a published author; it was still a time in which women authors were discriminated against so she used the pen name ‘Ennis Graham’ for her books aimed at adults, but later (beginning with “Tell Me A Story” in 1875) she began writing children’s books simply under the name ‘Mrs Molesworth’.

Although influenced by “The Wide, Wide World”, Mary downplayed religious themes in her own children’s books due (it is speculated) to being raised in a strict Calvinist household and instead wishing to give children something enjoyable to do on a Sunday afternoon by reading her books. Her children’s books became enormously popular in the Victorian nursery, and towards the end of her career she also developed an interest in writing supernatural ghost stories. Perhaps the reason behind her success was that, much like modern authors like Neil Gaiman, she argued that writing for children was not a soft option, but the most difficult task for any author and one which must be taken seriously: “…if the responsibility of writing any book is grave, surely the gravest of all is that of writing for children? Indeed, I often have felt that if I could thoroughly realise the possible effect of any carelessness, any unwisdom in what I write—when I recall the depth of impression made upon myself as a child by some injudicious passage, some little-intended suggestion of harm—I should hesitate to write at all.”

Though the Mrs Molesworth books are now little-remembered, their popularity a century ago meant they were the first reading matter for many children born at the end of the Victorian era, and those which inspired many to read further and become writers themselves. Among these was a girl named Agatha Miller, who later recalled that the earliest books she remembered in her voracious early habit of reading were Mrs Molesworth books such as “Christmas Tree Land (1897)” and “The Adventures of Herr Baby” (1881). Mrs Molesworth, along with E. Nesbit (“The Railway Children”, “The Phoenix and the Carpet”) can therefore be said to be the influences that led young Agatha to become an author. Indeed, in her late-career novel “Postern of Fate” (1973) the protagonists cite two of the Mrs Molesworth books as childhood favourites. Of course, she published her books under her rather better known married name—Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie, due to both enormous output and huge popularity, remains the best-selling novelist of all time. The majority of her works are mysteries/detective stories, with a few less-successful thrillers, the longest-running play of all time (“The Mousetrap”) and six romance novels published under another name. Her mysteries are either investigated by the two iconic detectives she created—the apparently harmless Victorian maiden aunt Miss Marple, and the egotistical but brilliant moustachioed Belgian Hercule Poirot—or sometimes by characters unique to each book. Naturally, due to her popularity and ubiquity, Agatha Christie has in turn influenced many other authors as young readers, and unlike Susan Warner or Mrs Molesworth her books have remained popular to this day and continue to receive new adaptations for film and TV.

It is obvious on reading “Harry Potter” that J. K. Rowling was one of those young readers influenced by Christie: the clue-based mystery plots in Potter display a writer familiar with the author who raised that art to perfection. Christie’s favourite plot twist, that the apparently obvious culprit is ruled out early on only to turn out to be the criminal after all thanks to a clever and intellectually satisfying bit of lateral thinking, is used in the Potter series. For one particularly clear example of influence, look to Christie’s novel “Appointment with Death” (1938). While travelling in the Middle East, Hercule Poirot encounters the Boynton family, a group of wealthy Americans held under the tyrannical grip of their widowed mother, a sadistic matriarch who takes pleasure in inflicting mental torture on others. It is small surprise when she is killed, but Poirot’s task is to work out which of the many possible killers with a motive actually did the deed. Mrs Boynton’s description suggests a prototype for Rowling’s Dolores Umbridge, but a mere hint becomes a clear connection when the reader is introduced to the youngest Boynton daughter, a redhead named Ginevra (referred to as ‘Jinny’ by the others) who has responded to her mother’s torture by retreating into her own fantasy world. A French psychologist also present suggests that Jinny might have killed her mother without even being in control of her own actions. Anyone who has read “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” can see the chain of influence.

This is, of course, only one of many influences on J. K. Rowling that led her to write the Harry Potter books. But it is nonetheless fascinating to consider that the ubiquitous Potter phenomenon, beloved by millions across the world, owes its existence in part due to something as esoteric as the economic policies of Andrew Jackson and the Bank of England in the early nineteenth century.

More ‘chains of consequences’ articles are in the works.

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