Only J K Rowling could have had this novel published. I don’t mean that The Casual Vacancy is a bad book. Only someone with Rowling’s fame and market success would have been given the chance on this, because it breaks rule number one of the reading group and supermarket stand: the characters are not likeable. Nearly all of Rowling’s parochial personnel are filled with hate, envy, self-satisfaction, and self-abasement. The perspective switches from one suburban monster to the next: chiselling petty tyrant Simon Price, the pathetic commitment-phobic Gavin, the lairy, thrusting solicitor Miles, and his father Howard Mollison, the obese deli king and local government big name, a character with so little redeeming features that the reader is almost physically disgusted by his presence. Rowling records every evil thought and dishonourable impulse as the citizens of Pagford live out their bitter, empty lives.
Pagford is a fictional West Country village run by a parish council controlled by the sort of people who have the time and energy to sit on parish councils. In the first chapter, local councillor Barry Fairbrother collapses from an aneurysm that detonates in his brain as he is strolling into the golf club restaurant. (At this point I thought: yeah, this is my kind of novel.) It turns out that Barry Fairbrother, generous and open minded, was the council’s one force for good: with him dead, the real power is seized by Howard Mollison and his aristocratic pal Aubrey Fawley. Their big problem is the Fields council estate that has overspilled from the city of Yarvil. The council estate is technically on Pagford land, and Howard’s respectable bourgeois cohort are appalled that their taxes have to subsidise white working class trash.
Rowling lays it out in a beautiful expository chapter:
Meanwhile, as a district councillor, Aubrey was privy to all kinds of interesting statistics, and in a position to share a good deal of information with Howard about Pagford’s troublesome satellite. The two men knew exactly how much of the district’s resources were poured, without return or apparent improvement, into the Fields’ dilapidated streets; that nobody owned their own house in the Fields (whereas the red-brick houses of the Cantermill Estate were almost all in private hands these days; they had been prettified almost beyond recognition, with window-boxes and porches and neat front lawns); that nearly two-thirds of Fields-dwellers lived entirely off the state; and that a sizeable proportion passed through the doors of the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic.
On the publication of Rowling’s book, a curious thing happened. Conservative critics mounted a weird, class based, reverse Eagleton style attack on Rowling’s novel. The Telegraph published angry vox pops from a village in Gloucestershire where Rowling lived as a child and on which, therefore, the fictional village might have been based (‘I must not defame the Forest of Dean’). Allison Pearson moaned about the adult content, which includes scenes of rape and suicide: contrasting this with the Harry Potter novels, she complained: ‘why has Rowling decided to break the spell, bewildering fans with this uneven, often harrowing book?’ As Alex Massie responded: ‘How dare she write the book she wanted to write! Couldn’t she think of the children?’
But the strangest attacks were on Rowling personally. The vox pop piece contains an insinuation of hypocrisy or fabulation: while it acknowledges Rowling’s years as a lone parent on the breadline, ‘[l]ess well known is the fact that from the age of nine until she left for Exeter University, Rowling lived a middle-class existence in Grade II-listed Church Cottage in Tutshill.’ Jenny Hjul claimed that Rowling’s previous books were coloured by metropolitan snobbery: ‘Harry Potter looked down at his petit bourgeoisie relatives, the Dursleys, before escaping to the more rarefied environs of Hogwarts, a boarding school where tradition rules.’ (In fact Hogwarts is fiercely meritocratic and the villains are trying to replace its ethos with a ‘pure’ wizardry based on blood.) Hjul’s written an odd, sly piece, which dwells heavily on Rowling’s current lifestyle: ‘she must have met some of the chattering class friends she admits she lays bare in her novel; possibly, she still hangs out with them. For, as she says herself, the middle class is the one she knows best.’
There’s even a suggestion that Rowling is a kind of class traitor. In a piece headlined ‘JK Rowling has turned her back on the culture that made her great’ former Torygraph editor Charles Moore attacked a political schema he had read into the book:
Anyone who has a slightly out-of-date, petit-bourgeois Christian name, like Howard, Shirley or Maureen, is bad. Such people’s evil is proved by the fact that they have carriage lamps outside their doors, refer to the sitting-room as the ‘lounge’, wear deerstalkers (indoors!) and candlewick dressing-gowns… In the Rowling dystopia, the good people, obviously, are any non-whites – represented, in benighted Pagford, by only one family (of admirable Sikh doctors) – plus lesbians, social workers and teachers.
It’s striking to see a man of the pragmatic right attempting to ‘interrogate’ a text like some deluded postgraduate whose head swirls with Chomsky and Derrida and little else. But what really gets to Moore is any critique of provincial values. ‘This is sad,’ he says, ‘because it is in our provincial life that our great culture has flourished. And it is partly because of the decline of our provincial life that it has degenerated.’
Consider for a second the right’s confused attitude to social mobility. You’d think they would be all for it, get on your bike, pull yourself up, and all that. But, having got there, you must not betray your class. UK conservatives have made critiques of bourgeois liberalism into a cottage industry. J K Rowling was a target because she was a Labour supporter, who defended progressive taxation instead of doing the decent thing and funnelling her Hogwarts millions through a Jersey SPV. Be successful. But do it our way.
Rowling’s book is bleak and grim, sure, but readers in small towns all over England will be nodding in recognition. She nails the obsession with status over merit, the amplification of petty disputes into high melodrama, and the hysterical resentment over benefits and immigrants that threatens to become a national paroxysm. As Bidisha says, the awful truth is that they really are like that. And that is why so many people get out young and never return. Oh, Moore has a point that there are great things about provincial culture. All I can say is that I’ve lived in cities and I’ve lived in provinces – and I can say without hesitation that one culture is better than the other.
Remember that cities are a relatively new thing. In Manchester, England, his study of the city, Dave Haslam identified an Old Tory resentment against urbanisation and the intrusion of the metropolis going back to the industrial revolution. It’s also something Rowling picks up on. Pagford parish councillors resent the nearby city of Yarvil despite the fact that it supports the town through nightlife and job creation. To Howard Mollison, Aubrey Fawley and the rest of the big fish, flapping around in their puddle-sized pond, Yarvil represents ‘a necessary evil’.
The section closes on a gorgeous, revealing line: ‘Their attitude was symbolised by the high hill, topped by Pargetter Abbey, which blocked Yarvil from Pagford’s sight, and allowed the townspeople the happy illusion that the city was many miles further away than it truly was.’
How J K Rowling defamed Gloucestershire. (Image: Telegraph)