When her mother Anne died, author JK ‘Jo’ Rowling had only just begun writing her Harry Potter novels. To her daughter’s abiding regret, Anne never lived to see the boy wizard become a global phenomenon. “She never knew I’d had the idea of my life to date,” says Jo.
Anne was keenly interested in learning more about her roots, but never found the time to explore her French genealogy. This is something her daughter wants to correct. It’s the beginning of a personal journey that demolishes a long-treasured family story and reveals three generations of indomitable single mothers.
Jo begins her research by meeting an aunt, Marian Fox, who holds family archives. These include letters from Jo’s French great-grandfather, Louis Volant, to her great-grandmother, Lizzie Smith. Louis, she learns, was born on 31 July 1877 – the same birthday as both Jo and Harry Potter.
Jo’s especially keen to know more about Louis because it’s said he received the French Légion d’honneur for his bravery in the First World War. It’s an award that Jo herself received in 2009, for services to world literature, making her feel a strong connection.
But Jo’s research into Louis’ life doesn’t begin in Paris, it begins in London, where Louis worked as a waiter. Having come to the capital in the 1890s, Louis rose to become head wine waiter at the Savoy Hotel in the 1920s, a prestigious job. Sadly, his marriage was less successful: a 1911 census entry shows Lizzie as the ‘head’ of her household and Louis living alone.
When war broke out in 1914, Louis crossed the English Channel to serve in the French army. At the National Archives in Paris, Jo hopes to learn how he won his Légion d’honneur. A nasty shock awaits. The records show a “phenomenally brave” Louis Volant did receive the award, but it’s not Jo’s forebear.
How can this be explained? At the Château de Vincennes, where French military records are held, historian Captain Ivan Cadeau has the answer. Louis was a corporal in the 16th Territorial Regiment, made up of older soldiers whose job was supposed to be to guard roads and bridges.
Instead, Louis found himself leading a small platoon holding off a German attack on the village of Courcelles-le-Comte in order to cover his regiment’s retreat. He killed several enemy soldiers and was seriously wounded by a shell. For his bravery, he was given the prestigious Croix de guerre – a medal given to ordinary soldiers, the Légion d’honneur then being reserved for officers. Louis was a hero after all.
After seeing Louis’ grave (sadly, a communal plot), Jo wants to go back another generation and learn about his mother, Salomé Schuch. Another shock awaits. Louis was illegitimate, born at a time when Salomé was working as a maid in Paris. In this era, as many as 30 per cent of babies in the city were born to unmarried mothers. There’s a happy ending here, though, because Salomé eventually married the father of her subsequent children (and perhaps of Louis), Pierre Volant. “This was a woman who was a survivor,” says Jo.
The same proves to be true of Salomé’s mother, stonemason’s wife Christine, who had seven children but found herself widowed and living through tumultuous times. Jo’s last visit is to Brumath, 10 miles from the German border, where she sees Christine’s one-time home. The town is in Alsace, which was annexed during the bloody Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and didn’t return to French control until 1918. At the town’s graveyard, Jo meets a cousin descended from Christine’s youngest child, Jacques.
Jo’s research into her French roots has come to an end. For someone who raised her own daughter as a single mother, it’s Salomé, who left Brumath for Paris as a teenager and bravely built a life for herself, who really “sings out” from history. Jo reflects on her experiences: “My mother would have adored every moment of this,” she says.