Even if, like me, you’re steeped in the love and lore of Harry Potter, the phenomenon of fan fiction may be new to you. In general, fan fiction is fiction written in the creative universe of another author. Harry Potter fanfic is an enormous online agglomeration of work stretching, expanding, or sometimes radically reshaping the familiar characters and settings of the wizarding world. I never set out thinking I wanted to write in this genre, but as the HP book series progressed, and Rowling gave us more and more glimpses into wizarding history, my historical fiction writer’s ears perked up. As my interpretation of the legend of the four founders of Hogwarts grew, I brought to it the same sorts of questions I often bring to thinking about the past, and the stories we can tell about it: what were the women up to, and what about the sorts of stuff that doesn’t get written down, because it’s too unusual or too scandalous? This isn’t the material professor Binns used, to put Harry and Ron to sleep through six years of History of Magic classes.
In the film adaptation of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them there’s some subtle yet telling character placement. Seraphina Picquery, the President of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, (MACUSA) and disgraced but competent auror Tina Goldstein, are women. So what? Big deal! It’s easy to have a casual reaction to this as 21st century European or North American audiences. It’s not so simple though when you put it into historical context. Those costumes and speakeasies aren’t just window-dressing. Show me a political ruling body, or a security force with high-ranking women in the 1920’s, and I’ll show you a wizard with his hat inside out. And for me, this is some of the best magic in the magical world. Though uniquely privileged and powerful, the magical community, at least in the last 1500 years or so, has become increasingly marginalised. This contradiction is irresistible to my imagination.
Portraits on the walls of St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, and the Head Master’s office at Hogwarts, make it clear that women are well-represented in positions of power in the history of the magical world. Why should this be so, given the relatively low profile and limited options of muggle women? If this is so, what other expressions of diversity does the flamboyant, purple-clad wizarding world contain? The low status of many sentient magical creatures, and the offensive insult “mudblood,” make it clear that the magical community at large isn’t a Utopia of equality and tolerance. Still, for women, it was manifestly safer and more pleasant to be a witch than a muggle.
One of the reasons I think feminism is still relevant, is that it’s essential for us not to forget what life has been like for most women in most of history. Voting, owning property, being a “person” under the law, and having access to reliable birth control, are just a few of the things we take for granted, but which most of our sisters in the past didn’t have, and which many today in other parts of the world still don’t have.
My fiction, both historical and fanfic, is set in medieval and early-modern Europe, and there’s no denying this was a violent and dangerous place. In a world governed by force, women were dominated physically, and in more pervasive ways by law and the Church. Scholars and theologians taught that women were simply inferior in every way. But how, I wondered, could such assertions stand among witches and wizards? A capable witch is just as likely to best a wizard in a conflict situation as the other way around. Muggle attitudes toward women were based on a perceived lack of physical power. If physical power becomes irrelevant because of a different kind of power, one not based on gender or stature, what happens?
My fanfic novel is set in the 11th century, before the Ministry of Magic, or the Decree of Secrecy. I have a persistent curiosity to look backward into wizarding history. The more I think about it, the clearer it seems to me that the concerns of women might have played largely into the movement of the magical world into hiding. The vast majority of those persecuted, tortured and killed as witches, were women. It seems pretty obvious that a true witch, in Rowling’s magic universe, would be easily able to evade capture. Therefore, the women being targeted were most likely muggles. How would it feel for magical women to see their muggle sisters suffer for acts that they themselves might have committed? True witches, living openly, posed a real threat to muggle women, perhaps contributing to a conscience-led movement to retreat from the muggle world, for its own good.
One of the reasons for the huge popularity of the HP franchise is the idea of a parallel world, existing alongside our own, but separate, rarefied, insular, with its own culture. Such a community knows well how it feels to be marginalised from mainstream culture. Would it, then, be more receptive to diversity within itself? People are people, and human nature will always do what human nature does. Nevertheless, subcultures are complex and layered. Just look at the clientele in the magical speakeasy, the Blind Pig in Fantastic Beasts. Further, we know that Dumbledore is gay, and although not “out” in the books or movies (yet,) there he is, wearing velvet suits and high-heeled boots.
And this is why I love writing Harry Potter fanfic. I want to look outside the boarders of the story, but specifically backward into history, because that’s my passion. Historically, if women wanted to pursue scholarship or a profession, we had to enter a convent. Ok, at certain times it was probably cool for men to wear purple cloaks and high heeled boots, but wardrobe aside, being different wasn’t generally safe or comfortable. I speculate that, in the subculture of the magical world, especially before the Decree of Secrecy, there may have been quite a large tolerance of difference. Of course forces of isolationism may have pushed things in the other direction, and this tension leaves endless spaces for speculation and invention.
To download my fanfic novel, Before the Tide, in text and audio, go here