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In defence of Petunia Dursley

We love to hate the Dursleys; they were narrow-minded, materialistic and horrible to Harry. However, the more we read about Aunt Petunia, the better we understand why she ended up this way.

Aunt Petunia looking shocked from the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

‘Lily, don’t do it!’ shrieked the elder of the two.
But the girl had let go of the swing at the very height of its arc and flown into the air, quite literally flown, launched herself skywards with a great shout of laughter, and instead of crumpling on the playground asphalt, she soared, like a trapeze artist through the air, staying up far too long, landing far too lightly.
‘Mummy told you not to!’
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

A Muggle childhood

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2

Petunia Dursley had plenty of reasons to hate and fear magic back when her name was Petunia Evans. As a child, she watched her little sister Lily do many strange things. To make matters worse, Lily Evans befriended a bedraggled boy named Severus Snape who didn’t think Lily was strange at all, and told her all about ‘magic’.

As Petunia was the Muggle sister, it wasn’t long before Snape turned on her, using his power to make a branch fall and hit her. As well as the physical damage, he added further insult to injury by emotionally hurting her too.

‘Wouldn’t spy on you, anyway,’ he added spitefully, ‘you’re a Muggle.’
Though Petunia evidently did not understand the word, she could hardly mistake the tone.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Experiences like these would have shaped Petunia’s attitude to magic for years to come.

From Snape’s final memories bestowed to Harry, it seems the Evans sisters used to have a close relationship. They bickered (as sisters do) but we also saw them playing together, sticking up for each other and Lily affectionately calling her big sis ‘Tuney’.

Unfortunately there was no escaping the fact that one girl possessed gifts that the other did not. This situation is difficult enough among Muggle siblings, so what happens when this ‘gift’ happens to be magic? And where did that leave poor Petunia?

‘You didn’t think it was such a freak’s school when you wrote to the Headmaster and begged him to take you.’
Petunia turned scarlet.
‘Beg? I didn’t beg!’
‘I saw his reply. It was very kind.’
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Worlds apart

The Potter Memorial
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

When Lily boarded the Hogwarts Express, the girls were separated in more ways than one. They realised they belonged to two different worlds and Petunia couldn’t help but feel left behind. In her eyes, magic probably tore the family apart.

Petunia envied her sister’s abilities, and frankly who wouldn’t? Everyone wants to feel special and we’ve all wished we had magical abilities at some point. When forced to accept that she’d never be a witch, Petunia fashioned an identity as the ‘normal’ one, taking pride in conformity and using Lily’s ‘weirdness’ as a means of one-upmanship.

‘I was the only one who saw her for what she was – a freak! But for my mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the family!’
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

From sisters to strangers

Vernon Dursley protecting Petunia
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Petunia and Lily’s rift grew deeper when they married – to put it lightly – very different men. Vernon Dursley’s poor first impression of James Potter meant that the two couples saw very little of each other. Meanwhile Vernon would have encouraged the worst aspects of Petunia’s character, making her petty, judgemental and incredibly bitter towards anything or anyone ‘different’.

No doubt Petunia would have been saddened by the news of Lily’s death but those complicated emotions – grief, regret and unresolved jealousy – were probably buried in the distractions of housework, gossip and pandering to her son Dudley’s every whim.

Harry’s presence agitated and unnerved Petunia because he reminded her of things she spent her life trying to avoid. His eyes – Lily’s eyes – recalled the sister she’d lost and the broken relationship that could never be mended. Petunia knew her nephew was destined for the magical world she once desperately longed to be a part of, rekindling old jealousies and feelings of inferiority. To cope with not being magical herself, Petunia seemed to have decided magic was a bad thing.

Dumbledore uses the Deluminator outside the Dursley's house.
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

Additionally Petunia knew that Harry’s world was full of danger and put her own family at risk… including precious Ickle Dudleykins! Yes, we all giggled at Dudley’s curly tail and misadventures with Ton-Tongue Toffee, but from a mother’s point of view, those incidents were actually quite horrific. That’s saying nothing of the Dementors and Lord Voldemort, terrors Petunia knows are all too real.

Aunt Petunia had never in her life looked at him like that before. Her large, pale eyes (so unlike her sister’s) were not narrowed in dislike or anger, they were wide and fearful. The furious pretence that Aunt Petunia had maintained all Harry’s life – that there was no magic and no world other than the world she inhabited with Uncle Vernon – seemed to have fallen away.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Last moments

In their last moments together at Privet Drive, Petunia hesitated but ultimately neglected to leave her nephew with any loving gesture or words of support. This felt disappointing as she’d already failed to make peace with Lily and appeared to be making the same mistake again. Would she regret it?

Each month Pottermore will try to defend the more… questionable characters from the Harry Potter stories. Come back next month when we make the case for Narcissa Malfoy.