Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Feb 3 2014 02:00PM

News flash: it’s hard to write like Jane Austen.


I don’t just mean that it’s hard to emulate Austen’s diamond-bright sentences, with their elegant phrasing and tiny, hidden time-bombs of irony. (Although it is.) I mean that it’s hard to recount the more-or-less unexceptional events of daily life and yet make that ordinariness as compelling as any swashbuckling melodrama.


Thus it is that Helen Baker’s 2008 book The Watsons By Jane Austen and Another Lady, the subject of today’s installment in my “Watsons in Winter” blog series, manages to turn a series of ordinary events into. . . not much more than a series of ordinary events. The result isn’t unremittingly terrible – but it’s a reminder that what looks so effortless in Jane Austen’s hands is very, very difficult indeed.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 6 2014 02:00PM

The Watsons, the novel Jane Austen started and then abandoned on the cusp of her thirties, is a wintry book: not, perhaps, in its chronology – the story starts in October – but in its mood.


In a swift fifty-five pages, most likely written in Bath in 1804, Austen sketches a middle-class family trembling on the edge of economic disaster – an ailing father, four single daughters with few marital prospects, and two sons whose fledgling professional lives are shadowed by the knowledge that they may soon have to support their spinster sisters.


The nineteen-year-old heroine, Emma Watson, is an outsider in her own home – unceremoniously packed off to her family after fourteen years in the household of an aunt whose brand-new husband has decided to renege on the implied promise of a home and a dowry.


The Watsons seems likely to feature plenty of Austen humor, stemming from both the naiveté of the good-hearted Emma (“Rivalry, treachery between sisters!” she exclaims in astonishment when she hears how one of her siblings scotched the marital prospects of another) and the excesses of such secondary characters as the shallow, social-climbing sister-in-law, Jane; the whiny and hypocritical younger sister, Margaret; and the flirtatious Tom Musgrave, playing wingman for the standoffish Lord Osborne. Behind these shadowy beginnings of characters, we glimpse the familiar, well-loved figures of Mrs. Elton and Mary Musgrove, Frank Churchill and Mr. Darcy.


But despite the flashes of wit (Margaret, hearing she won’t have to share her room with Emma, is “rather mortified to find she was not ill-used”), the prevailing mood is dark. Barely acquainted with her closest relations, Emma struggles with feelings of loneliness and rejection and sadly discovers that the fierce competition for survival and social advantage has embittered many of the people she left behind. In places, the fragment reads like the first romantic comedy written by Hobbes.

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.

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