Deborah Yaffe


Sanditon Summer: Helen Baker

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 18 2013 01:00PM

Like Elizabeth Bennet overhearing Darcy’s dismissive insult at the Meryton Assembly, I developed an early prejudice against Helen Baker, the author of the Sanditon continuation I’m discussing in today’s edition of Sanditon Summer.

It happened as I flipped through the early pages of Baker’s The Brothers, looking for the place where Jane Austen’s fragment ended and Baker’s own words began. In a paragraph that should have been all Austen, I ran across this line of dialogue from Sidney Parker: “I propose to spend two or three days, as it might happen, at dear old Sanditon – or should I say spanking modern, fashionable Sanditon?”

“Spanking modern”? SPANKING? The conclusion was inescapable: with consummate nerve, and no notice to her readers, Baker had edited Jane Austen. And a careful comparison of Baker’s initial eighty-eight pages with Austen’s fragment only confirmed this conclusion.

Baker, it seems, doesn’t like Austen’s long sentences, preferring to divide them up, even when that means creating sentence fragments. She’s sometimes confused by Austen’s free indirect discourse, in which the voice of the narrator blends seamlessly with the voices of her characters, and likes to clarify matters by inserting attributions of the “Charlotte thought” or “Mr. Parker said” variety. She feels Austen’s comic monologues drag a bit and need to be broken up with short paragraphs describing the listeners’ reactions. From time to time, she likes to add her own spanking modern dialogue.

Needless to say, none of this improves on the original.

So Baker and I got off on the wrong foot. But our relationship improved once Baker left Austen-editing behind and launched her own story. And if we never made it to Elizabeth-and-Darcy-style true love, we did reach a reasonable detente. The Brothers isn’t fabulous, but it’s a perfectly respectable Sanditon continuation.

Helen Baker (b. 1948) is a Brit who has lived in southern France for the past twenty years, after a career that included working as an accountant, as a civil servant in the UK’s tax bureaucracy, and as a lecturer in New Zealand’s adult education program. She’s the author of more than a dozen books, most of them self-published, in a variety of genres – biography, romance, travel, finance – including eight Austen spinoffs.

Baker’s The Brothers – according to one family tradition, this was Austen’s working title for the fragment we know as Sanditon – contains few surprises. Budding romance between Charlotte Heywood and Sidney Parker: check. Family competition for Lady Denham’s money and favor: check. Sir Edward Denham’s dastardly plans for Clara Brereton’s ruin: check.

Baker’s greatest achievement is the endearing closeness she imagines for the extended Parker family, as she successfully conjures the noisy friendliness of dinner-table encounters among the five loving, exasperating brothers and sisters. And to her credit, Baker does not sidestep the issue of race, allowing characters to comment, sometimes unfavorably, upon Miss Lambe’s West Indian roots – surely more realistic for the period than the color-blind tolerance that so many contemporary Sanditon continuers assume.

Her writing is choppier than Austen’s – see “doesn’t like long sentences,” above – but generally clear and inoffensive. In fact, once I recovered from my outrage at Austen-editing, inoffensive was pretty much what I found The Brothers to be. It’s not the acidly funny satire that Austen probably had in store for us, and it doesn’t develop plot or character in thought-provoking new directions. But I’ve read much, much worse.

Helen Baker. The Brothers, by Jane Austen and Another Lady. Lulu, 2009.

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