In the early 1990s, a young British night-school tutor was living in the shabby-romantic northern Portuguese city of Porto, treading cobbled alleyways, ascending the well-worn staircase of a magnificent neo-Gothic bookstore and catching flyaway glimpses of black-caped schoolchildren. Some of those arresting images found their way into the fictional realm she went on to create: the “Harry Potter” series, the beloved worldwide blockbuster about a boy magician and his friends.
Last month, as a now-missed Brexit deadline was bearing down, J.K. Rowling and nine other British literary luminaries, academics and artists published a batch of elegiac love letters to a continental Europe that helped shape their personal and creative comings-of-age. In them, the writers struck themes that have echoed in breakup missives down the ages: lacerating regrets, still-stunned disbelief and the eternal lovers’ lament: Did it really have to end like this?
“Dear Europe,” Neil Gaiman, acclaimed author of fantasy tales and myth-infused graphic novels, wrote in one of the letters published under that rubric by the Guardian newspaper. “I loved feeling part of you. That feeling that we were together, our differences combining to make something bigger than either of us. Something unique, something neither of us could have been on our own.”
Brexit, approved by referendum in June 2016, has been a long goodbye, and it just got longer. Britain’s rupture with the rest of the European Union, which was to have occurred on Halloween, is now on hold until Jan. 31. In the interim, British elections Dec. 12 could give Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives the parliamentary majority they need to finally usher the country out of a bloc it has been part of for nearly 47 years.
Some of the letter writers described the intoxicating sense of freedom that came with youthful crossings of the English Channel. Novelist Alan Hollinghurst, whose early works provided a then-pioneering portrait of gay life, wrote of these journeys as metaphor: “Marseille, Ventimiglia, Turin, Milan, possibilities turning to practical certainties. … We knew we belonged in Europe as our own country belonged there.”
Classicist Mary Beard, whose rigorous scholarship has also found an enthusiastic pop-culture following, wrote of a long academic career that paralleled, and was enriched by, Britain’s membership in the EU and its predecessor organizations.
“Over these last forty-something years, what I do, the context in which I do it, and how I define myself and my job has changed dramatically, taking a decidedly European turn,” Beard wrote in her letter, calling that transformation “without doubt, a turn for the better.”
Britons won’t be banished from the rest of the EU, of course. But neither will they have the sense of belonging that comes with what are essentially rights of citizenship in 27 other countries — to live or work where they please, across an array of landscapes and cultures. To attend university in France, say, or start a family in Spain, or land a dream job in Rome, or conduct research in the Czech Republic, or retire in sunny Portugal.
More than one letter writer sounded a warning that the darkest days of World War II were not such a distant memory, and European unity was not to be taken for granted. British-Danish writer Sandi Toksvig wrote of her farfar — Danish for grandfather — building a false wall to make a place to hide fleeing Jews. With the help of compatriots, nearly 99% of Denmark’s Jews escaped the Holocaust, spirited across the water to neutral Sweden.
“History matters,” Toksvig wrote. Of the “wonderful decision” to create postwar institutions like the EU, she said: “We have had peace. Almost 75 years of it. I love peace and quiet. I love Europe.”
Another of the letter-writers, the prize-winning Dutch-born author Michel Faber, voiced the injured sensibilities of some of the estimated 3.5 million non-British EU nationals who have made the country their home, some for decades, and whose ability to continue living here is now imperiled.
“A love letter to Europe?” asked Faber, embraced by his adopted Scotland for works that include haunting descriptions of the Highlands. “I already wrote it, 26 years ago, to Britain, and I thought the answer was yes” — that Britain would remain part of the European Union.
Rowling’s letter didn’t mention the words “Harry Potter” — why would she need to, after all? Instead, she wrote of being entranced by Porto’s “spectacular bridges, its vertiginous riverbanks” and its melancholy fado folk music.
And she dwelled at length on a simpler, earlier continental European encounter: a childhood pen-pal friendship that blossomed into visits with a German family, providing young Joanne from the Welsh borderlands with a thrilling window into another way of life.
Invoking a quotation by Voltaire, “L’amitié est la patrie” — “Where there is friendship, there is our homeland” — Rowling addressed her old school friend by name.
“Hanna, I really don’t want to lose my homeland,” she wrote.
Braided together with the letters’ sense of nostalgia and longing, though, was a pronounced element of self-examination — and self-rebuke, not too dissimilar to some Americans’ introspection after the 2016 election of President Trump.
“It’s all very well for intellectuals to enjoy the new linguistic Babel of their common rooms, or of the students at elite universities to take advantage of the new horizons that come with cultural European collaboration,” wrote Beard, the Cambridge classicist. “But none of that means very much to the unemployed of, say, Boston, Lincolnshire” — the northern English town that cast the heaviest vote in favor of Brexit in 2016.
“Those of us who have been the beneficiaries of New Europe must face the uncomfortable fact that we are partly to blame for the vote going, in our terms, so badly wrong,” Beard continued. “Because we didn’t stop, or we didn’t stop long enough, to think of those who are on the other side of the cultural divide.”
Britons will have to wait for the next Brexit chapter, and it’s possible, even at this late juncture, that political machinations of coming months will set the country on a different path. But a sense of impending loss comes through clearly in all the letters, including the rueful benediction delivered in Gaiman’s epistolary farewell.
“You’ll be fine without me, my love,” he wrote. “How I’ll be, without you, I’m not so sure.”