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Whitechapel: How author Jane Austin came to write her latest novel Renegade

Writer follows previous work News From Nowhere with political novel that blends past and present

Author Jane Austin – image by Matt Grayson

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When someone rings you up and says: “Hello, my name is Jane Austin and I’m an author,” there’s an obvious temptation – even more so when writing up the subsequent interview.

For it is a truth universally acknowledged that a journalist in possession of a blank page must be in want of a glib, witty introduction to their piece.

But this isn’t the exquisitely tawdry Jane Austen Centre in Bath (well worth a visit, if you enjoy the process of being indelicately fleeced as a tourist), so I won’t bang on about my subject’s Pride in her work or how it took little Persuasion to arrange the interview.

Now that’s out of the way, I can write about something far more interesting – Austin herself.

As mentioned, Jane is an author and recently published her second novel, Renegade.

Based in Whitechapel (now a mere three minutes from Canary Wharf, thanks to the arrival of Crossrail), she’s also a member of the online book group based at the Idea Store in the estate’s Churchill Place shopping mall. 

“I’ve always been in a book group and I love sharing books, talking about them and the ideas that come out of them,” she said.

“This particular group is quite cosmopolitan and reads such interesting books – I think it works really well and I would encourage anybody to join.

“I love pushing my own boundaries and horizons, because you can live so many lives through books.”

Detail from the cover of Jane's lates novel Renegade
Detail from the cover of Jane’s lates novel Renegade

Her latest novel Renegade tells the story of Leeds professor Justin who is seeking redemption in the ashes of his youthful idealism and struggling to hold his family together as his son is drawn into radical politics by his lover who joins a Kurdish women’s militia to fight ISIS.

Meanwhile revelations about Justin’s past as an urban bomber leave his wife devastated, turning his life upside down. 

“I wanted to write a political novel, because I had some experience to draw on and the challenge of writing from a male point of view appealed to me.

“I created Justin and pitched him into a very difficult situation.

“I wanted to find out what would happen to a man who had got involved in very radical politics as an urban guerrilla when he was younger, who did things he didn’t pay the price for at the time.

“Now we see him, in later life, confronted by the family of the man who paid the price, and I wanted to explore how he dealt with that.

“Justin is a man who got involved in very left-wing libertarian politics and believed utterly at the time that he was doing the right thing, continuing  to justify it even when everything went terribly wrong. But then what happened?”

While Renegade isn’t autobiographical as such, Jane was able to draw on her own life.

“For 10 years I was involved with a left-wing revolutionary organisation, which was called the International Marxist Group, although I certainly don’t share Justin’s libertarian politics” she said.

“We were involved in getting embedded in industrial jobs in order to work alongside people for political reasons – on the railways, where I was a guard at Marylebone station, or in a number of jobs in the knitwear industry and a whole range of manual jobs.

“Part of the drive was for women to take on manual jobs, and I was one of the first female guards to break into that, but the knitwear industry was very gender divided.

“Then came a job where you could apply to be an inspector, which involved three shifts, but when I applied I was told that they couldn’t have women working at night, so we took it to the Equal Opportunities Commission and they fought it with us and we won.

“The novel is set in the 1970s and I wasn’t politically active then, but I was familiar with the political landscape on the left and I could draw on the kinds of debates and nit-picking discussions that went on. 

“I would hope readers make connections with some of the things that are happening today, but for me Renegade is a more universal story about how we all come to terms with our past and present.

“In our younger lives we can be different and in later years we may not recognise ourselves – it’s about how we integrate past and present and different aspects of ourselves. That to me is the story of Justin and how he sorts himself out, if he does.”

Jane says she wanted to write a political novel
Jane says she wanted to write a political novel – image by Matt Grayson

Formerly a teacher, Jane became a novelist after taking a course when she was nearing retirement from her role in community education at the University Of York. 

“I did an evening class on creative writing part time for three years and in the end decided I wanted to write a novel,” she said.

“That came about because I have a collection of family letters from the First World War written by my grandfather, and this developed into my first book News From Nowhere.

“It was from the point of view of a young woman called Bronwen, the sister who was left at home and was receiving this flood of letters from her brothers and father from the Western Front.

“Around that I wove a story about how a young woman grew up in that period, and how the war and the world influenced her life. I got a taste for it, joined a writers’ group and became really involved.”

Having relocated to London from York to be closer to her twin grandchildren and her daughter, the actor and writer Naomi Sheldon, Jane is now working on her third book.

“My next novel is based on the history of somebody called Eliza Raine,” said Jane.

“She interests me because she was born in the late 18th century in Madras to an Indian mother and a father who worked as a doctor for the East India Company.

“When he died he put in his will that the two girls should be taken care of by their guardian in York, so he went six months on the boat to Madras and took them six months back to York.

“My story is about her journey really, socially, emotionally and physically over that voyage and the years after.

“There’s also a connection with Gentleman Jack – Anne Lister – who Eliza fell in love with when they were teenagers at a boarding school in York.

“They had this passionate affair, that for many reasons destroyed Eliza who spent many of her years in silence.”

 Jane is a member of the book group based at Idea Store Canary Wharf
Jane is a member of the book group based at Idea Store Canary Wharf

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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