I found, for the most part, Helen Baker's The Brothers (Austen's working title for the novel) perfectly delightful. For the most part, Ms. Baker develops Austen's characters in a very similar manner to Another Lady, but she dwells on subjects which seem out of place in Austen. Most particularly, she excessively emphasizes the difficulties of Miss Lamb's social status as a mulatto, which was referenced in such a way as to make me pretty uncomfortable. Mrs. Parker acts as the representative of these sentiments, making some blatantly racist remarks. These might be appropriate to the era, but I have a hard time excusing them, especially when they are unnecessary to the plot and in a modern book (copyright 2009). I do not think Ms. Baker intended anything other than an exploration of period perspectives on race, an issue frequently raised in all forms of Austen related media, from JAFF to criticism, due to those oblique references to slavery in Mansfield Park. However, well-intended though she may be, Ms. Baker only succeeds in offending, adding nothing constructive to her plot in the process.
This disagreeable aspect aside, I can reassert my claim that the book is perfectly delightful. Ms. Baker inserts another chapter into Austen's beginning, in which Charlotte Heywood writes to her sister, as a means of introducing the rest of her plot. Charlotte and Sidney Parker become co-conspirators in this book, protecting the young ladies of Sanditon from that wannabe Lovelace, Sir Edward Denham. I particular liked Ms. Baker's rendition of Esther Denham, which is the most sympathetic portrayal of the lady I have come across. Everyone gets what they deserve in this happy tale. Charlotte is an artist, and as she parts from Mr. and Mrs. Parker she gives them a caricature of the entire family, which perfectly captures the characters as Austen created them:
"Upon my soul, you have observed us well," commented her host as he laughed at the antics of his brothers and sisters. "There is Diana winding a second scarf around Arthur, while he snatches another tart from the table behind her back."
"I am trying to stop Susan dosing little Mary and tipping some of her drops out of the nursery window, while snatching up Baby with the boys clinging to my skirts," laughed his wife. "Meanwhile you, my dear, are inspecting your plans for the construction of an improved Royal Pavilion at Sanditon - well really! But what is Sidney doing - oh Charlotte! He will never forgive this." High above Sanditon, sitting on a cloud, a smiling Sidney Parker pulled on the tangled strings of his brothers and sisters, like a demented puppeteer.
Ms. Baker has written several other Austen continuations/sequels which I am now very anxious to read: Precipitation: A Continuation of Miss Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, The Book of Ruth (about Mary and Kitty Bennet's search for husbands), Connivance (a Persuasion sequel), The Watsons by Jane Austen and Another Lady, and Playfulness (a Mansfield Park sequel focused on Mary Crawford). All are available for download (at a price) at Lulu.com.
In these pages, Sir Edward Denham quotes the poetry of Charlotte Smith. She was a Sussex-born novelist and poet, admired by Sir Walter Scott, who wrote a brief biography of her. Jane Austen knew her work, and I have taken the liberty here of characterizing her as Emmeline Turner.
Now, I am not an expert on Charlotte Smith, having only studied some of her poetry in college, but I do know she was long dead when Austen was writing Sanditon and did not live the lifestyle Ms. Barrett provides Emmeline Turner. She becomes friends with Charlotte, who leaves Sanditon with her to enjoy the pleasures of London. Simultaneously, the fortunes of the small spa town are fluctuating rapidly, with smugglers lurking on the shore and fashionable Corinthians establishing a race track. The chronology is awkward, and there are some historical issues I noticed, like Lady Denham entering the dinning room first in her own house and women being members of Brooke's. Still, the story is a wildly different take on the fragment than any other I have read, which makes it very interesting. I would have enjoyed it much more had Ms. Barrett not written such flourishing prose, which frequently obscured her meaning. She does a far better job of miming Austen in another entertaining book, Presumption, about Georgiana Darcy.
My favorite part of Charlotte was the opening of chapter thirty three, where she beautifully captures the essence of a great Austen hero:
Susceptible young men, however vexed by a violent passion, will rarely be possessed by it. It is the clear-minded, those in command of their persons, who by resistance to love's frequent allures, exhibit true strength of character. A pledge from one of these reticents is the more intense, if finally obtained, and certainly most to be valued.
This might be the best depiction of what makes an Austen hero so very special that I have read. As I said before, Ms. Barrett's book is extremely ambitious and there are parts which positively shine, but as a whole her attempt at completing this book just doesn't quite work; the story has more potential than is achieved.
I haven't read Ms. Barrett's The Third Sister, about Margaret Dashwood, but I probably will at some point.