Harry’s aunt and uncle met at work. Petunia Evans, forever embittered by the fact that her parents seemed to value her witch sister more than they valued her, left Cokeworth forever to pursue a typing course in London. This led to an office job, where she met the extremely unmagical, opinionated and materialistic Vernon Dursley. Large and neckless, this junior executive seemed a model of manliness to young Petunia. He not only returned her romantic interest, but was deliciously normal. He had a perfectly correct car, and wanted to do completely ordinary things, and by the time he had taken her on a series of dull dates, during which he talked mainly about himself and his predictable ideas on the world, Petunia was dreaming of the moment when he would place a ring on her finger.
When, in due course, Vernon Dursley proposed marriage, very correctly, on one knee in his mother’s sitting room, Petunia accepted at once. The one fly in her delicious ointment was the fear of what her new fiancé would make of her sister, who was now in her final year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Vernon was apt to despise even people who wore brown shoes with black suits; what he would make of a young woman who spent most of her time wearing long robes and casting spells, Petunia could hardly bear to think.
She confessed the truth during a tear-stained date, in Vernon’s dark car as they sat overlooking the chip shop where Vernon had just bought them a post-cinema snack. Vernon, as Petunia had expected, was deeply shocked; however, he told Petunia solemnly that he would never hold it against her that she had a freak for a sister, and Petunia threw herself upon him in such violent gratitude that he dropped his battered sausage.
The first meeting between Lily, her boyfriend James Potter, and the engaged couple, went badly, and the relationship nose-dived from there. James was amused by Vernon, and made the mistake of showing it. Vernon tried to patronise James, asking what car he drove. James described his racing broom. Vernon supposed out loud that wizards had to live on unemployment benefit. James explained about Gringotts, and the fortune his parents had saved there, in solid gold. Vernon could not tell whether he was being made fun of or not, and grew angry. The evening ended with Vernon and Petunia storming out of the restaurant, while Lily burst into tears and James (a little ashamed of himself) promised to make things up with Vernon at the earliest opportunity.
This never happened. Petunia did not want Lily as a bridesmaid, because she was tired of being overshadowed; Lily was hurt. Vernon refused to speak to James at the reception, but described him, within James’ earshot, as ‘some kind of amateur magician’. Once married, Petunia grew ever more like Vernon. She loved their neat square house at number four, Privet Drive. She was secure, now, from objects that behaved strangely, from teapots that suddenly piped tunes as she passed, or long conversations about things she did not understand, with names like ‘Quidditch’ and ‘Transfiguration’. She and Vernon chose not to attend Lily and James’ wedding. The very last piece of correspondence she received from Lily and James was the announcement of Harry’s birth, and after one contemptuous look, Petunia threw it in the bin.
The shock of finding their orphaned nephew on the doorstep a little over a year later was, therefore, extreme. The letter that accompanied him related how his parents had been murdered, and asked the Dursleys to take him in. It explained that, due to the sacrifice Lily had made in laying down her life for her son, Harry would be safe from the vengeance of Lord Voldemort as long as he could call the place where her blood still existed home. This meant that number 4, Privet Drive, was his only sanctuary.
Prior to Harry’s arrival, Petunia had become, if anything, the more determined of the Dursleys in suppressing all talk about her sister. Petunia had some latent feelings of guilt about the way she had cut Lily (whom she knew, in her secret heart, had always loved her) out of her life, but these were buried under considerable jealousy and bitterness. Petunia had also buried deep inside her (and never confessed to Vernon) her long ago hope that she, too, would show signs of magic, and be spirited off to Hogwarts.
Reading the shocking contents of Dumbledore’s letter, however, which told her how bravely Lily had died, she felt she had no choice but to take Harry in, and raise him alongside her own cherished son, Dudley. She did it grudgingly, and spent the rest of Harry’s childhood punishing him for her own choice. Uncle Vernon’s dislike of Harry stems in part, like Severus Snape’s, from Harry’s close resemblance to the father they both so disliked.
Their lies to Harry on the subject of how his parents had died were based largely on their own fears. A Dark wizard as powerful as Lord Voldemort frightened them too much to contemplate, and like every subject they found disturbing or distasteful, they pushed it to the back of their minds and maintained the ‘died-in-a-car-crash’ story so consistently that they almost managed to persuade themselves it was true.
Even though Petunia was raised alongside a witch, she is remarkably ignorant about magic. She and Vernon share a confused idea that they will somehow be able to squash the magic out of Harry, and in an attempt to throw off the letters that arrive from Hogwarts on Harry’s eleventh birthday, she and Vernon fall back on the old superstition that witches cannot cross water. As she had frequently seen Lily jump streams and run across stepping stones in their childhood, she ought not to have been surprised when Hagrid had no difficulty making his way over the stormy sea to the hut on the rock.
Vernon and Petunia were so-called from their creation, and never went through a number of trial names, as so many other characters did. ‘Vernon’ is simply a name I never much cared for. ‘Petunia’ is the name that I always gave unpleasant female characters in games of make believe I played with my sister, Di, when we were very young. Where I got it, I was never sure, until recently a friend of mine played me a series of public information films that were shown on television when we were young (he collects such things and puts them on his laptop to enjoy at leisure). One of them was an animation in which a married couple sat on a cliff enjoying a picnic and watching a man drowning in the sea below (the thrust of the film was, don’t wave back – call the lifeguard). The husband called his wife Petunia, and I suddenly wondered whether that wasn’t where I had got this most unlikely name, because I have never met anybody called Petunia, or, to my knowledge, read about them. The subconscious is a very odd thing. The cartoon Petunia was a fat, cheery character, so all I seem to have taken is her name.
The surname ‘Dursley’ was taken from the eponymous town in Gloucestershire, which is not very far from where I was born. I have never visited Dursley, and I expect that it is full of charming people. It was the sound of the word that appealed, rather than any association with the place.
The Dursleys are reactionary, prejudiced, narrow-minded, ignorant and bigoted; most of my least favourite things. I wanted to suggest, in the final book, that something decent (a long-forgotten but dimly burning love of her sister; the realisation that she might never see Lily’s eyes again) almost struggled out of Aunt Petunia when she said goodbye to Harry for the last time, but that she is not able to admit to it, or show those long-buried feelings. Although some readers wanted more from Aunt Petunia during this farewell, I still think that I have her behave in a way that is most consistent with her thoughts and feelings throughout the previous seven books.
Nobody ever seemed to expect any better from Uncle Vernon, so they were not disappointed.