A Butterbeer for Aunt Petunia
Stephen King warned me. Two weeks before Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hit the stores, he posted a column advising fans to stock up on Kleenex. No matter which side triumphed, whether Harry lived or died, the story was approaching its end. We would all have to say farewell to characters we’ve come to know and love, that kids of a certain age have literally grown up with. And that, King said, was going to hurt.1
How right he was. I miss Potter & Company so much, I’ve started thinking kindly of characters I never even liked. Today I’m thinking of Petunia Dursley, Harry’s Muggle aunt.
Like most characters in the Harry Potter saga, Aunt Petunia is more complicated than she appeared at first. She isn’t a person I’d enjoy spending time with. But compared to Voldemort and his minions, she really doesn’t seem such a bad sort.
Sure, she never went out of her way to provide Harry with a happy home life – but when you stop to think about it, Harry didn’t do much for hers, either. He brought magic into her house when Petunia wanted nothing to do with magic. He attracted elves, messenger owls, and other odd creatures to her quiet suburban neighborhood where they didn’t belong. None of this was exactly Harry’s fault. He never asked to be orphaned at fifteen months and farmed out to relatives who didn’t want him. He couldn’t help who he was. Still, his presence in the house was a link to the world of witches and wizards, a world Petunia had tried hard to leave behind.
In Deathly Hallows, readers learned something of her early encounters with that world. For me, those brief glimpses explain a lot about Petunia’s later attitudes and behavior.
The aunt that Harry knew in childhood craved a neat, predictable life. She kept an immaculate kitchen.2 She and Uncle Vernon were proud of their well-groomed lawn.3 Petunia lacked imagination, but she did have a nosy streak.4 Perhaps she spied on neighbors out of a need to assure herself that their lives were no more interesting than hers. I’m tempted to call her stingy and cold-hearted, but that wouldn’t be fair. She was generous to a fault, as protective as a mother bear, where her dear son Dudley was concerned.
Petunia was the elder sister of Lily, Harry’s mom. Stored memories, brought magically to life in Professor Dumbledore’s Pensieve, suggest the girls were reasonably close as kids. They played together; if they disagreed on occasion, well, siblings often do. Petunia, as we might expect, was a stuffy, Goody Two-Shoes type. She tried hard to keep her kid sister out of trouble, and that wasn’t always easy. Lily had an adventurous streak, and she occasionally did something Petunia couldn’t explain, and therefore didn’t approve of – something like jumping from a high swing and landing more lightly than any child had a right to.5
Big sisters typically have a sense of responsibility, a desire to protect younger members of the pack. As we’ve already seen, the protective instinct was quite strong in Petunia. I think her reaction to Lily’s magic was based partly on fear. She feared what she didn’t understand, and perhaps she also worried that her sister’s tricks would get her into trouble. If that’s what Petunia thought, her worry wasn’t entirely misplaced. The Muggle world hasn’t always been friendly to people caught doing magic.
Big sisters are also prone to jealousy, especially when a younger sibling is better looking, more popular, or talented in some way that the elder is not. It galled Petunia that she couldn’t do what Lily did.6 When Lily found a friend who had the same peculiar talent, Petunia felt even more left out.
Severus Snape wasn’t the sort of boy Petunia would invite home for dinner. He lived in a bad neighborhood. He dressed funny. And Petunia was sure he’d been lurking in the bushes for some time, spying on them, before he leapt out and gave her a fright.7 In the months that followed, Petunia and Snape engaged in a kind of tug-of-war for Lily’s affection. Snape made it plain that he didn’t think much of “Muggles.” He claimed to be a wizard, and insisted Lily was a witch. Balderdash, of course … but Petunia had seen enough to harbor a nagging fear that it just might be true.8
When Lily got her letter of invitation from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Petunia felt sure no good would come of it. Their parents took a different view, and Petunia resented that. “I was the only one who saw her for what she was – a freak!” she would say years later. “But for my mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the family!” 9 And yet, Petunia wrote to the headmaster of Hogwarts and begged him to accept her, too.10
Her reasons, I suspect, were convoluted. Maybe she hoped to make her parents as proud of her as they were of Lily. Maybe she didn’t like the idea of putting the kid sister on a train to who-knows-where with no family to look after her. Maybe she thought if she studied hard, she could learn a few spells and turn Snape into something even Lily couldn’t love. Perhaps it was all of those things.
Professor Dumbledore answered her letter. I’m sure he used every bit of his considerable tact, but of course he said no.11 Petunia at Hogwarts would have been like Cinderella’s stepsister trying to wedge her foot into the glass slipper. Stairways that wouldn’t stay put! Ghosts roaming the halls!! Owls swooping over the breakfast table!!! She wouldn’t have lasted a week.
Denied entry to Hogwarts, Petunia cried sour grapes. If she couldn’t have magic, it wasn’t worth having. If Hogwarts wouldn’t take her, no decent person would want to go there anyway.
And then, just before Lily boarded the train, Petunia discovered to her horror and humiliation that the little witch knew about her correspondence with Dumbledore. She and her greasy-haired friend had found his letter and read it.12
So the sisters parted on bad terms, and they were never friends again. Lily grew up and married James Potter, a pureblood wizard from a well-to-do family. Petunia married Vernon Dursley, a Muggle with even less imagination than she had, and pursued a militantly normal, drearily conventional life.
As we all know, she didn’t get that, either. Ten years after rejecting her application to Hogwarts, Professor Dumbledore wrote Petunia a second letter. He left it on her doorstep, in a basket that also contained little Harry Potter.13
The letter brought bad news. Her sister was dead. Lily and James had been murdered by a terrible Dark wizard. The wizard had also tried to kill their son, who now had no mum or dad to take care of him. There was a lot of mumbo-jumbo about sacrifice, protective magic, and a family bloodline that would give Harry a chance at growing up safe, if Petunia would only take him in.14
She didn’t want the kid. She had her own son to raise. But Albus Dumbledore was a hard man to refuse. And when Petunia looked into Harry’s little face, she saw the eyes of the baby sister she had once loved – a sight that, I’m sure, filled her with an uncomfortable blend of resentment and regret.
Readers aren’t privy to the conversation that took
place in the Dursley home that day. I’ll bet it was a doozy. Petunia and
The way she saw it, magic had done nothing to improve her life. It had soured her relationship with her only sister, captured an unfair share of their parents’ attention, and left Petunia to grow up unloved and unappreciated. In the end, magic hadn’t done Lily any good either, had it? Here she was, dead at twenty-one, leaving this scar-faced toddler for somebody else to raise. If Petunia was going to get stuck with that job, she’d do Harry a favor and keep him away from all that.
In the weeks or months that followed, it may have
occurred to Petunia that she now had a family much like the one she grew up in:
a couple with two kids, one normal, one (possibly) some kind of freak. And she
vowed that her true son, her precious Diddykins, would not wind up feeling like
the odd one out. Every slight, every insult, every over-the-top punishment the
Dursleys inflicted on their nephew was an unfortunate by-product of two
Of course they overcompensated by indulging
Lily and Petunia, sisters after all, were both
fiercely protective moms. Lily intercepted a Killing Curse meant for Harry. I
have no doubt Petunia would have done the same for
To be honest, I probably have more in common with Petunia than with Harry, Hermione and all their friends at Hogwarts. I am, after all, a Muggle. I’m a Big sister. I have, on occasion, been saddled with tasks that I didn’t want, and have gone about them with something less than wholehearted enthusiasm. This doesn’t make me a hero, but I like to think the world is better for my having done the work, however imperfectly, than if nobody had done it at all.
Unpleasant as it was, Harry’s life with the Dursleys gave him a few advantages. As a frequent target of Dudley and his gang, he acquired survival skills. He developed a keen appreciation for the plight of the underdog, which would serve him well in dealings with house-elves and hippogriffs. He found shelter at Petunia’s house, and that was no small gift. Thanks to his mother’s magic and his aunt’s grudging hospitality, he spent ten years of childhood and all the summers of his adolescence in the only place on earth where Voldemort couldn’t touch him.
So tonight, I’ll drink a butterbeer to Aunt Petunia. She was drafted to serve in a war she never wanted any part of. She wasn’t the best soldier, but when all is said and done, I have to conclude that she fought for the right side.
1. King, “Goodbye, Harry.”
Rowling, Order of the
3. Ibid, 48.
4. Ibid, Sorcerer’s Stone, 1 & 6.
5. Ibid, Deathly Hallows, 663-664.
6. Ibid, 664.
7. Ibid, 664-665.
8. Ibid, 665-668.
9. Ibid, Sorcerer’s Stone, 53.
10. Ibid, Deathly Hallows, 669-670.
13. Ibid, Sorcerer’s Stone, 16.
14. Ibid, Order of the
15. Ibid, Half-Blood Prince, 55.
16. Ibid, 56.
King, Stephen. “Goodbye, Harry.” EW.com from Entertainment Weekly, July 5, 2007. www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20044682,00.html
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the
———. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the
———. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s