The Watsons in Winter: Helen Baker
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.
Although British, Helen Baker (b. 1948) has lived in southern France for over twenty years, after a career featuring stints as an accountant, a civil servant in the UK’s tax bureaucracy, and a lecturer in New Zealand’s adult education program. She’s also 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. (I reviewed one of these, The Brothers, during my Sanditon Summer blog series last year.) In a brief preface to her completion of The Watsons, Baker assures her readers that “not a word of Miss Austen’s penning has been omitted.” What Baker fails to point out is that, with more audacity than wisdom, she has edited around Miss Austen’s words – interpolating phrases here and there, repunctuating sentences, breaking up passages of free indirect discourse to explain who said what. She did much the same thing in her Sanditon continuation, and in both cases, we Janeite readers can only shake our heads in mystification. Where Austen sets the scene of The Watsons “in Surrey,” Baker sets it “in the fair county of Surrey.” Where Austen writes, “Female economy will do a great deal, my lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one,” Baker prefers, “Female economy will do a great deal, my lord. It cannot ever turn a small income into a large one.” Only someone in firm possession of a tin ear could conclude that these revisions are improvements. As the story gets underway, it quickly becomes clear that, like other Watsons continuers before her, Baker cannot stomach the bleakness of the original fragment. She quickly rescues Emma Watson from the financial desperation into which Jane Austen sank her, resorting to a less-than-plausible plot twist to return Emma to more genteel circumstances. From then on, it’s just one thing after another – visits, proposals, engagements, moves from Surrey to Bath, from Bath to Surrey – with little sense of a larger design into which all these unremarkable incidents fit. It’s mostly inoffensive without being terribly gripping. Along the way, however, Baker succeeds in sketching a rather sweet relationship between Emma and the suitor who will eventually win her hand – and since he’s not the man most Watsons continuers choose for the role, the relationship has the added virtue of coming upon us as unexpectedly as real love sometimes does. It’s a shame Baker didn’t find a way to flesh out the part of her story that works, rather than dissipating her energies on all the parts that don’t. Focus, intensity, the ruthless economy of good storytelling – Jane Austen is good at that stuff. But it’s hard. Helen Baker. The Watsons By Jane Austen and Another Lady. Lulu, 2008.