A childhood fan of historical romances, author Rebecca Jenkins has created her own 19th Century world. She talks to Sarah Foster about her passion for the past and working with her father, former Bishop of Durham, the Right Reverend David Jenkins.
THERE can’t be many people who can boast a knowledge of how to run a 19th Century court martial, what constituted perfume in Jane Austen’s era or what type of carriages were used in the same period, but Rebecca Jenkins is one of them.
A historian by training (she studied history at Oxford), she has always loved immersing herself in the minutiae of the past. Through FR Jarrett, the protagonist of her series of County Durham-based crime novels, she can do just this.
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“I have a vast library and I love strange books about very odd details,” she says. “For me, they make the world. FR Jarrett is like a Doctor Who character. He takes you to other worlds.”
Rebecca, who is 49, and lives in Barnard Castle, is writing the third FR Jarrett mystery, having completed The Duke’s Agent and Death of a Radical. She chose the 1800s as it was a period she was familiar with, having grown to love it through the romances of Georgette Heyer, which she devoured as a child. To the modern reader, it may seem distant and inaccessible, but Rebecca begs to differ.
“Actually people haven’t changed that much, and I’m writing about what was then called an age of melodrama,” she says.
“It’s very much like celebrity culture so in one sense we have huge amounts in common.
With things like popular novels with gothic and vampire themes, I thought it was a similar jump. Also, it’s such fun, I wanted to share it with people.”
A natural storyteller from childhood, Rebecca would spend hours making up adventures in her head, or telling them to her sister, Deborah. She fell in love with the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel and began collecting diaries and journals from the time, even taking up fencing. She still finds the era fascinating.
“When I studied history people would talk about the 18th Century, the Enlightenment period, as this time of reason, and then you had the Romantic period and it seemed like a totally different generation.
“I wanted to write about someone who was born in the Enlightenment but FR Jarrett is also a painter. He’s a soldier who has problems in his background and is forced to come home, having been fighting in war. He comes back to a world that’s not at peace and he has to come to terms with what justice means.”
Before embarking on the current series, Rebecca wrote a biography of the 19th Century actress, Fanny Kemble, and she has also written The First London Olympics: 1908, for which she was longlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year prize. She was inspired to write about Kemble, part of a renowned acting dynasty, after working as a dresser at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre while in her teens. Part of the appeal was Fanny’s relationship with her father.
“I loved the personality and she worked with her father, which I also did,” says Rebecca. “At the time I’d been working very closely for ten years with my own father (the Right Reverend David Jenkins), who was at that time Bishop of Durham, and I was interested in that working relationship.”
WHAT started as a stopgap after university turned into a full-time occupation for more than 15 years. It was a torrid time for the then bishop, whose consecration at York Minster was marked by a fire and whose ministry was dogged by controversy.
Rebecca blames the political and social climate.
“I was his assistant and researcher and did press relations, and we wrote books together,”
she says. “The Eighties were a very different time and he had become controversial and there was a huge amount of press interest, vast amounts of phones ringing. In my mind, that’s when the media and celebrity culture really kicked off, so it was a very strange time to be in the public eye.”
In the midst of the miners’ strike, Dr Jenkins won hearts by championing the cause of local people, earning him a reputation as a firebrand.
Rebecca recalls him being shouted down in Parliament after reporting that families in Sunderland could not afford shoes for their children – something the London-based politicians simply didn’t believe.
“I think the thing I found most interesting was that it was a fascinating insight into what it actually means to be part of this celebrity culture,” she says.
“I worked with him because I loved him but also because I believed in what he did. I greatly admired what he was standing up for.”
Nowadays, it seems rare to hear such outspoken views by a high-profile member of the clergy, which may be construed as a missed opportunity.
Rebecca concedes this, but feels there are legitimate reasons for it.
“In the Eighties, the soundbite media hadn’t quite got going and we were at the height of Thatcherism so there was a very dominant political party,” she says.
“Nelson Mandela and those questions were still running very hot indeed and in a way I think bishops like my father were propelled into a bit of a vacuum. There seemed to be nobody else speaking out.
“I’m sure that the bishops now are perfectly well-informed about things and have strong opinions, but one of the questions is whether the media today can cope with points that require more than one sentence to make. I think a lot of thoughtful people are frightened about engaging with the media in a meaningful way because it gets reduced to headlines.”
As a writer, Rebecca now leads a much quieter life, with her main struggle being finding the time for composing stories while earning sufficient money to pay the bills. To this end, she works part-time as Royal Literary Fund fellow at York St John University, discussing writing matters with students and staff.
Will there be more FR Jarrett novels? “It was designed as a series and at the moment I have about a dozen plotlines that I want to do,” she smiles. “I hope that will be a dozen books.”
Death of a Radical by Rebecca Jenkins (Quercus, £7.99). Rebecca will be chairing an evening of music and conversation with the novelist Joanna Trollope at The Sage, Gateshead, on April 19, at 8pm. For information, call 0191-443- 4661.