Minerva McGonagall was the first child, and only daughter, of a Scottish Presbyterian minister and a Hogwarts-educated witch. She grew up in the Highlands of Scotland, and only gradually became aware that there was something strange, both about her own abilities, and her parents’ marriage.
Minerva’s father, the Reverend Robert McGonagall, had become captivated by the high-spirited Isobel Ross, who lived in the same village. Like his neighbours, Robert believed that Isobel attended a select ladies’ boarding school in England. In fact, when Isobel vanished from her home for months at a time, it was to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that she went.
Aware that her parents (a witch and wizard) would frown on a connection with the serious young Muggle, Isobel kept their burgeoning relationship a secret. By the time she was eighteen, she had fallen in love with Robert. Unfortunately, she had not found the courage to tell him what she was.
The couple eloped, to the fury of both sets of parents. Now estranged from her family, Isobel could not bring herself to mar the bliss of the honeymoon by telling her smitten new husband that she had graduated top of her class in Charms at Hogwarts, nor that she had been Captain of the school Quidditch team. Isobel and Robert moved into a manse (minister’s house) on the outskirts of Caithness, where the beautiful Isobel proved surprisingly adept at making the most of the minister’s tiny salary.
The birth of the young couple’s first child, Minerva, proved both a joy and a crisis. Missing her family, and the magical community she had given up for love, Isobel insisted on naming her newborn daughter after her own grandmother, an immensely talented witch. The outlandish name raised eyebrows in the community in which she lived, and the Reverend Robert McGonagall found it difficult to explain his wife’s choice to his parishioners. Furthermore, he was alarmed by his wife’s moodiness. Friends assured him that women were often emotional after the birth of a baby, and that Isobel would soon be herself again.
Isobel, however, became more and more withdrawn, often secluding herself with Minerva for days at a time. Isobel later told her daughter that she had displayed small, but unmistakable, signs of magic from her earliest hours. Toys that had been left on upper shelves were found in her cot. The family cat appeared to do her bidding before she could talk. Her father’s bagpipes were occasionally heard to play themselves from distant rooms, a phenomenon that made the infant Minerva chuckle.
Isobel was torn between pride and fear. She knew that she must confess the truth to Robert before he witnessed something that would alarm him. At last, in response to Robert’s patient questioning, Isobel burst into tears, retrieved her wand from the locked box under her bed and showed him what she was.
Although Minerva was too young to remember that night, its aftermath left her with a bitter understanding of the complications of growing up with magic in a Muggle world. Although Robert McGonagall loved his wife no less upon discovering that she was a witch, he was profoundly shocked by her revelation, and by the fact that she had kept such a secret from him for so long. What was more, he, who prided himself on being an upright and honest man, was now drawn into a life of secrecy that was quite foreign to his nature. Isobel explained, through her sobs, that she (and their daughter) were bound by the International Statute of Secrecy, and that they must conceal the truth about themselves, or face the fury of the Ministry of Magic. Robert also quailed at the thought of how the locals – in the main, an austere, straight-laced and conventional breed – would feel about having a witch as their minister’s wife.
Love endured, but trust had been broken between her parents, and Minerva, a clever and observant child, saw this with sadness. Two more children, both sons, were born to the McGonagalls, and both, in due course, revealed magical ability. Minerva helped her mother explain to Malcolm and Robert Junior that they must not flaunt their magic, and aided her mother in concealing from their father the accidents and embarrassments their magic sometimes caused.
Minerva was very close to her Muggle father, whom in temperament she resembled more than her mother. She saw with pain how much he struggled with the family’s strange situation. She sensed, too, how much of a strain it was for her mother to fit in with the all-Muggle village, and how much she missed the freedom of being with her kind, and of exercising her considerable talents. Minerva never forgot how much her mother cried, when the letter of admittance into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry arrived on Minerva’s eleventh birthday; she knew that Isobel was sobbing, not only out of pride, but also out of envy.
As is often the case where the young witch or wizard comes from a family who has struggled with its magical identity, Hogwarts was, for Minerva McGonagall, a place of joyful release and freedom.
Minerva drew unusual attention to herself on her very first evening, when she was revealed to be a Hatstall. After five and a half minutes, the Sorting Hat, which had been vacillating between the houses of Ravenclaw and Gryffindor, placed Minerva in the latter. (In later years, this circumstance was a subject of gentle humour between Minerva and her colleague Filius Flitwick, over whom the Sorting Hat suffered the same confusion, but reached the opposite conclusion. The two Heads of house were amused to think that they might, but for those crucial moments in their youths, have exchanged positions).
Minerva was quickly recognised as the most outstanding student of her year, with a particular talent for Transfiguration. As she progressed through the school, she demonstrated that she had inherited both her mother’s talents and her father’s cast-iron moral sense. Minerva’s school career overlapped by two years with that of Pomona Sprout, later Head of Hufflepuff House, and the two women enjoyed an excellent relationship both then, and in later years.
By the end of her education at Hogwarts, Minerva McGonagall had achieved an impressive record: top grades in O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s, Prefect, Head Girl, and winner of the Transfiguration Today Most Promising Newcomer award. Under the guidance of her inspirational Transfiguration teacher, Albus Dumbledore, she had managed to become an Animagus; her animal form, with its distinctive markings (tabby cat, square spectacles markings around eyes) were duly logged in the Ministry of Magic’s Animagus Registry. Minerva was also, like her mother, a gifted Quidditch player, although a nasty fall in her final year (a foul during the Gryffindor versus Slytherin game which would decide the Cup winner) left her with concussion, several broken ribs and a lifelong desire to see Slytherin crushed on the Quidditch pitch. Though she gave up Quidditch on leaving Hogwarts, the innately competitive Professor McGonagall later took a keen interest in the fortunes of her house team, and retained a keen eye for Quidditch talent.
Upon graduation from Hogwarts, Minerva returned to the manse to enjoy one last summer with her family before setting out for London, where she had been offered a position at the Ministry of Magic (Department of Magical Law Enforcement). These months were to prove some of the most difficult of Minerva’s life, for it was then, aged only eighteen, that she proved herself truly her mother’s daughter, by falling head-over-heels in love with a Muggle boy.
It was the first and only time in Minerva McGonagall’s life that she might have been said to lose her head. Dougal McGregor was the handsome, clever and funny son of a local farmer. Though less beautiful than Isobel, Minerva was clever and witty. Dougal and Minerva shared a sense of humour, argued fiercely, and suspected mysterious depths in each other. Before either of them knew it, Dougal was on one knee in a ploughed field, proposing, and Minerva was accepting him.
She went home, intending to tell her parents of her engagement, yet found herself unable to do so. All that night she lay awake, thinking about her future. Dougal did not know what she, Minerva, truly was, any more than her father had known the truth about Isobel before they had married. Minerva had witnessed at close quarters the kind of marriage she might have if she wed Dougal. It would be the end of all her ambitions; it would mean a wand locked away, and children taught to lie, perhaps even to their own father. She did not fool herself that Dougal McGregor would accompany her to London, while she went to work every day at the Ministry. He was looking forward to inheriting his father’s farm.
Early next morning, Minerva slipped from her parents’ house and went to tell Dougal that she had changed her mind, and could not marry him. Mindful of the fact that if she broke the International Statute of Secrecy she would lose the job at the Ministry for which she was giving him up, she could give him no good reason for her change of heart. She left him devastated, and set out for London three days later.
Though undoubtedly her feelings for the Ministry of Magic were coloured by the fact that she had recently suffered an emotional crisis, Minerva McGonagall did not much enjoy her new home and workplace. Some of her co-workers had an engrained anti-Muggle bias which, given her adoration of her Muggle father, and her continuing love for Dougal McGregor, she deplored. Though a most efficient and gifted employee, and fond of her much older boss, Elphinstone Urquart, Minerva was unhappy in London, and found that she missed Scotland. Finally, after two years at the Ministry, she was offered a prestigious promotion, yet found herself turning it down. She sent an owl to Hogwarts, asking whether she might be considered for a teaching post. The owl returned within hours, offering her a job in the Transfiguration department, under Head of Department, Albus Dumbledore.
The school greeted Minerva McGonagall’s return with delight. Minerva threw herself into her work, proving herself a strict but inspirational teacher. If she kept letters from Dougal McGregor locked in a box under her bed, this was (she told herself firmly) better than keeping her wand locked there. Nevertheless, it was a shock to learn from the oblivious Isobel (in the middle of a chatty letter of local news) that Dougal had married the daughter of another farmer.
Albus Dumbledore discovered Minerva in tears in her classroom late that evening, and she confessed the whole story to him. Albus Dumbledore offered both comfort and wisdom, and told Minerva some of his own family history, previously unknown to her. The confidences exchanged that night between two intensely private and reserved characters were to form the basis of a lasting mutual esteem and friendship.
Through all her early years at Hogwarts, Minerva McGonagall remained on terms of friendship with her old boss at the Ministry, Elphinstone Urquart. He came to visit her while on holiday to Scotland, and to her great surprise and embarrassment, proposed marriage in Madam Puddifoot’s teashop. Still in love with Dougal McGregor, Minerva turned him down.
Elphinstone, however, had never ceased to love her, nor to propose every now and then, even though she continued to refuse him. The death of Dougal McGregor, however, although traumatic, seemed to free Minerva. Shortly after Voldemort’s first defeat, Elphinstone, now white-haired, proposed again during a summertime stroll around the lake in the Hogwarts grounds. This time Minerva accepted. Elphinstone, now retired, was beside himself with joy, and purchased a small cottage in Hogsmeade for the pair of them, whence Minerva could travel easily to work every day.
Known to successive generations of students as ‘Professor McGonagall’, Minerva – always something of a feminist – announced that she would be keeping her own name upon marriage. Traditionalists sniffed – why was Minerva refusing to accept a pure-blood name, and keeping that of her Muggle father?
The marriage (cut tragically short, though it was destined to be) was a very happy one. Though they had no children of their own, Minerva’s nieces and nephews (children of her brothers Malcolm and Robert) were frequent visitors to their home. This was a period of great fulfillment for Minerva.
The accidental death of Elphinstone from a Venomous Tentacula bite, three years into their marriage, was an enormous sorrow to all who knew the couple. Minerva could not bear to remain alone in their cottage, but packed her things after Elphinstone’s funeral and returned to her sparse stone-floored bedroom in Hogwarts Castle, accessible through a concealed door in the wall of her first-floor study. Always a very brave and private person, she poured all her energies into her work, and few people – excepting perhaps Albus Dumbledore – ever realised how much she suffered.
Minerva was the Roman goddess of warriors and wisdom. William McGonagall is celebrated as the worst poet in British history. There was something irresistible to me about his name, and the idea that such a brilliant woman might be a distant relative of the buffoonish McGonagall.
A small sample of his work will give a flavour of its unintentional comedic value. The following was written as part of a poem commemorating a Victorian railway disaster:
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.