Story: Baker, Louisa Alice

Page 1 - Baker, Louisa Alice

Baker, Louisa Alice

1856–1926

Journalist, novelist

This biography was written by Janet McCallum and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Louisa Alice Baker was a prolific writer who described herself as 'bred under the Southern Cross, held cheaply there – and labelled in London'. She was born Louisa Alice Dawson on 13 January 1856 at Aston, Warwickshire, England, the second of five children of Elizabeth Bratt and her husband, Henry Joseph Dawson, a carpenter and part-time town missionary. The family arrived in Lyttelton on the Lancashire Witch as assisted immigrants in October 1863, settling in the Christchurch area. Louisa began writing for newspapers when very young.

She was 18 when she married John William Baker, a 33-year-old house painter (and Greek scholar) in Christchurch on 7 November 1874. Their son, John William Walter, was born the following year and their daughter, Ethel Elizabeth, in 1877. In July 1886 Louisa went to Dunedin and began work at the Otago Witness, writing the women's and children's columns and assisting William Fenwick to edit the children's page, 'Dot's Little Folk'. She took her children to live with her while her husband remained in Christchurch. It is said that he travelled to Dunedin to bring back his son.

Baker's children's column was highly successful; as the first 'Dot' (who became an institution outlasting the Otago Witness itself) she encouraged children to write in with their concerns. Soon dozens from isolated country areas as well as the towns did so, and were given 'Dot's' advice, for example on pets or behaviour.

Her column for women, by 'Alice', was similarly innovative. Instead of the 'common scissors-and-paste-woman-page affair' despised by the writer Jane Mander, it consisted almost entirely of her own work. Regular features included a personal letter to her readers (sometimes with a poem), answers to correspondents' letters, and her own serials. At first she included the usual social notes and home hints, but later reduced these considerably. This new approach was noted with approval at a meeting of the Canterbury Women's Institute economics committee in September 1893.

Baker's negative experience of marriage was reflected in Alice's letter column. Her first concerned the desirability of 'Happy homes'; another, entitled 'Do girls of eighteen know their own minds?', cautions young women not to rush into marriage. Although she did not divorce her husband, they were never reunited; he died at Ashburton in 1916.

Clearly ambitious, in a column of late September 1893 Baker posed the question, 'Why do men ask that women should sit in the shadow of their throne?'. She had by then written her first novel, A daughter of the King, and according to her son 'sailed to England to publish it and never returned'. By 1894 she was in England with her daughter, and 'with no influence behind her but courage and good craftsmanship' she established herself as a writer and journalist in London. From this time her pen-name was 'Alien'.

She did not see her son again, but wrote regularly, sending him copies of her 16 novels and one book of short stories. At least seven novels appeared in the United States as well as in Britain, and some ran to second editions in England. While the plots of her novels are romantic and at times melodramatic, in A daughter of the King (1894) and The majesty of man (1895) she deals with matters which were important to her, including the right of women to be autonomous. The majesty of man suggests that women should be able to choose celibate separatism instead of marriage. However, Wheat in the ear (1898) rejects the notion that educated career women must live a celibate life, asserting instead their entitlement to sexual love as well as intellectual fulfilment. These early novels, all set in New Zealand, are unusual for their treatment of contemporary feminist issues. The ideal marriage is a common theme in nearly all her novels, but none of them depict a happy one. Baker was chided for painting 'portraits of women who trifle with the sacredness of marriage' instead of 'unblurred portraits of the ideal woman'. Nevertheless, she was recognised in New Zealand as 'A colonial George Eliot', and at the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition in Dunedin in 1925–26, 14 of her novels were on display in the women writers' section.

After 1902 Baker felt her memories of New Zealand were fading and began to use more English than New Zealand settings. However, from 1903 she maintained her New Zealand connection by writing a weekly column, ' "Alien's" Letter from England', for the Otago Witness. She covered a range of topics including the women's suffrage movement, divorce, cultural events, fashion, the seasons and, of course, Parliament and royalty. The articles were 'eagerly read' and she continued to produce them until her death.

In later life Louisa Baker lived alone at Deal, Kent; she earned her living from the proceeds of her books and free-lance writing; for many years she was a valued and reliable reader for a large London publisher. Baker was 'active and capable and in good health' when she died suddenly of severe burns after extinguishing a fire from her portable oil stove. She had been writing an article for the Witness at midnight when the accident happened. She died the next day, 22 March 1926, at Victoria Hospital, Deal.