J.K. Rowling, famed author of the Harry Potter book series, made two magical discoveries of her own during a taping of the BBC show “Who Do You Think You Are?” a few years ago.
Rowling’s participation in the show was inspired by her mother, Anne Volant, who died 1990 and was interested in learning about her French roots, although she never had the chance to explore them. Growing up, Rowling’s family celebrated the bravery of Louis Volant, the WWI war hero and Legion d'Honneur recipient she thought was her great-grandfather. The treasured family story was, however, a case of mistaken identity, as “Who Do You Think You Are?” later determined.
According to Rowling, one of her aunts had received a WWI medal and the military records of a man named Louis Volant from what she referred to as "the war department," but was likely the military archives at the Chateau de Vincennes, or the National Archives in Paris. The “Louis Volant” named in the records was Louis Francois Alexandre Volant, a war hero awarded with the Legion d'Honneur for his bravery during the Battle of Verdun, but he was not Rowling’s great-grandfather.
The mistake was an easy one to make: Rowling’s real great-grandfather, it turns out, was also a man named Louis Volant who fought for France in WWI. The revelation was a bit of a blow to Rowling, who was awarded the Legion d’Honneur for her contributions to literature in 2009 and who said that she was proud to be the second winner of the honor in her family, though she felt that her accomplishments could not be compared to the bravery of her great-grandfather.
Though one connection to her family was severed, Rowling discovered another connection to take its place. The author broke down in tears when it was revealed that, like Rowling herself, her great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother, and great-great-great-grandmother, had all raised children alone.
Rowling’s incredible rags-to-riches story is now well-known: while writing the early books in the Harry Potter series, Rowling was a single mother living on benefits in Edinburgh, Scotland following the end of her first marriage. Now, she is happily married, with two more children. “What I’m very struck by is how many single mothers I’m descended from in this line of the family,” Rowling told the Radio Times. “There’s a definite parallel here.”
“There were a lot of big surprises, some wonderful, and one rather upsetting,” she said of her time on the show. “However, I went into the program wanting the truth, no matter what it was, because I knew so little about my French ancestry, and I don’t regret a moment of it. I loved the whole experience.”