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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Sanditon Summer: Helen Baker

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.


Jan 12 2020 09:41AM by helen baker

Hello Deborah. I have just come across the review you wrote on July 18th 2013 of my book The Brothers. Thank you for your kind words and overall it was very fair. Just a couple of points. You criticised my use of ‘spanking’. I check every single word I use to ensure that it would have been familiar to Jane. According to Google, ‘spanking’ in the informal sense of ‘fine and impressive’ has been in existence since the early eighteenth century. Indeed, you can find it with that meaning in Fanshawe’s Love for Love’s Sake of 1666. More importantly, you were outraged that I edited Jane Austen. Yes, I rearranged things slightly to make sentences shorter for the modern reader. But you will find every word she wrote has been included. Even so, other readers complained that I left in so much of Sir Edward’s high-flown prose that they were tempted to abandon the book because of it. Then I found your review of The Watsons of February 2014. Again, I plead guilty to very slight rearrangements. How dared I? Do you not think that it is precisely what the editors would have done when confronted with the original muddled manuscript? If you look at any of the following sites, you will find that this has been done over and over again. Transcriber's Note: Obvious punctuation errors have been corrected.The title page lists the authors as Austen-Leigh. The text omits the hyphen. This was retained.In the interests of maintaining the integrity of the Austen letters, archaic or unusual spellings were retained as was inconsistent capitalization. For example: expence, acknowlegement; d'Arblay, D'Arblay. More detailed notes will be found at the end of the text. I dread to think what you would make of Miss Jane Austen’s Lady Susan – Revived, of 2010. Undeterred, I am currently trying my hand at a continuation of The Brothers. We are united in admiration of Jane Austen. Even when I try to emulate her, just for fun, I aspire to do it as faithfully as possible, even to the spelling. Best wishes, Helen Jan 20 2020 06:36PM by Deborah Yaffe

Thanks for commenting, Helen! I do think there's a significant difference between, on the one hand, such common editorial practices as modernizing spelling and capitalization and, on the other, the kinds of significant changes to sentence structure and rhythm that you chose to make in your JA continuations. But of course those books are your work, not JA's, and so you can do whatever you want, even if it's not to my taste. I wish you much luck with your writing!

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