The name “Dobby” appears in A Fine Old Conflict, 1 Jessica Mitford’s memoir of her radical youth in 1950s America—and a book J K Rowling has almost certainly read. Rowling, as we know from interviews, admires Jessica Mitford—she even named her daughter after the left-wing political campaigner and journalist.
“Dobby” Walker (no other first name given) was the Communist party organiser who recruited Jessica and her second husband, Bob Treuhaft. This Dobby does not resemble Harry Potter’s friend in any obvious way—she is female for one thing, and far from subservient.
Her first appearance in the memoir comes when Jessica Mitford recalls the term ‘Real Communist’, as it was used by her first husband, Esmond Romilly. Romilly, another upper-class English radical and a nephew of Winston Churchill, was killed in action during the War.
Romilly had written that ‘Real Communist’ “…was a purely personal definition I applied instinctively…to fit it you had to be a serious person of single-aim sincerity, a rigid disciplinarian lacking in any selfish motives…”. Jessica continues: “Applying this definition to my co-workers, I thought I could detect a few Real Communists; for example Dobby…” 2This is confirmed a little later when we learn that Dobby was shocked that a comrade had taken time off to get married and go on honeymoon, without “getting her exec. Board’s permission for absence”. Jessica Mitford finds this amusing, but genuinely respects Dobby’s devotion to the cause.
So, what to make of this? Could J K Rowling’s Dobby be a front elf for (yet another) secretive organisation? Do Reds make the Beds at Hogwarts? Is this what lies behind their rejection of the well-meaning but, in every sense of the word, woolly liberalism of SPEW?
I think not. Certainly, Dobby the House Elf has a concept of the Elves’ being oppressed as a group – an essential first step towards a political analysis of their plight. In Chamber of Secrets (CS10) (pp132-133, hardover Brit. Edn) he refers to House Elves as “us, – the lowly, the enslaved, us dregs of the magical world!” He also speaks of “…those of us who thought the dark days [of Voldemort’s ascendancy] would never end” (CS10), which suggests that, Winky and Kreacher notwithstanding, he is not the only House Elf who yearns to be free.
But it is Harry, not some wizarding equivalent of Moscow Central, whom Dobby sees as the House Elves’ “beacon of hope”. A ‘Real Communist’ would doubtless consider Dobby to be hopelessly devoted to a bourgeois reactionary ‘cult of personality’ with superstitious tendencies—witness Dobby’s original Christmas decorations (OP21) and his portrait of Harry (OP23).
While it is reasonable to assume the Rowling has probably read A Fine Old Conflict, that in itself does not mean that her choice of the name Dobby was consciously influenced by it. The Dobby Jessica Mitford knew is only fleetingly mentioned and would not necessarily stand out in a reader’s memory—not in a pre-Potter world, anyway! There really is very little similarity between the two Dobbys.
And yet, the wizarding world is not totally unlike the McCarthy era. If you substitute Voldemort for the Bomb, then the atmosphere of fear, self-censorship and bigotry, with those outside the pale unable to get jobs, and populist politicians appealing to the lowest common denominator, does look rather familiar. Dobby the House Elf stands up for freedom, even if it does make his fellow Elves uncomfortable. Just possibly his name is, if not a co-incidence or an unconscious echo, a writer’s private joke.
1 A Fine Old Conflict, Jessica Mitford, first published by Michael Joseph Ltd, London 1977, reprinted 1978 and 1979 by Quartet Books Ltd, ISBN 0-7043-3201-9. It is, incidentally, a fascinating and entertaining read for anyone interested in the extraordinary Mitford family, or in the American left in the 1950s.