FOR A LONG TIME I refused the temptation of the audiobook, believing that any sentence by Austen, Proust, or Flaubert must be processed through the eyes if it was to travel the right path across the frontal lobe and down into the deepest part of the viscera.
It’s probably obvious I have no idea how the body works.
In any case, a woman in my book group inadvertently swayed me when she read aloud the portion of Anna Karenina that was under discussion. The musicality of her voice awoke in me a sense-memory of being read to in bed as a child. Like most voracious child-readers, once I was able to take the book into my own hands, I never wanted to relinquish it to anyone else’s interpretation. But this woman's reading of Tolstoy reminded me that control isn’t always the best choice. I began to believe some of my stupid time — doing dishes, at the gym — might be more fun if I spent it with Henry James. And, in fact, thanks to audiobooks I now look forward to many of the tasks I used to put off (or not do at all).
I waded in with an unabridged Portrait of a Lady read by John Wood, but every time the actor tried on the voice of a woman, I winced at his effort. We can brook no artificiality, paradoxically, if our fictions are to become real for us. This John Wood thing was not going to work. I knew I had to find, not just a voice, but a sensibility with whom I wanted to travel a significant journey.
Let me now cut to the chase. What I hadn’t anticipated, even after I found a worthwhile voice (female) to tell me the tale of Isabel Archer, was that on this earth walk certain readers who illuminate a text more than any first-time reader possibly could. The experience of listening to these artists is akin to seeing an expert production of a play, where so much interpretive work is done for you, without taking anything from you. I learned this when I encountered Juliet Stevenson’s astounding delivery of George Eliot’s Middlemarch on Naxos AudioBooks.
During the course of reading Middlemarch Stevenson performs 25 major and dozens of minor characters, encompassing 35 hours of performance. It turns out Stevenson is a ubiquitous presence in the Naxos catalogue; she’s recorded all of Jane Austen for them as well a significant portion of Virginia Woolf, and she won an “Audie” award, given out by the Audio Publishers Association, for her reading of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in the category of sole female narration.
More than distinguishing each character by his her or her own cadence and accent, Stevenson brings a well of compassion and humor seemingly as deep as Eliot’s own to Middlemarch, a sprawling provincial community taking first steps toward modernization in the 1830s. Stevenson’s aural depiction of Edward Casaubon, whose pedantry our young heroine Dorothea disastrously mistakes for wisdom, is simultaneously severe and generous. Stevenson includes Casaubon’s agonizing doubt even as she etches his nurtured self-regard with the scalpel of a world-class satirist. She will show you why generations of academics, or at least those who fear that the character may be a comment on their own proclivities, shudder when they encounter Casaubon and his infallible ability to drain the color out of even a declaration of love.
Like any good actor, Stevenson relishes taking on the story’s most audaciously duplicitous character, John Raffles, a blackmailer masquerading as a gregarious tippler. She brings a vaudevillian energy to Raffles’ obscene friendliness (think of Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd), making us both long for and dread his malevolent company.
If I were to quibble with Stevenson’s performance, which I am too indebted to her to do, I might say that she is somewhat less successful with the primary female voices, taking both heroines, Dorothea Brookes and Mary Garth, a bit too much into the sunshine. But that may just be my feminine pride speaking.
Her transitions from character to narrator, or, from a state of activity to homeostasis, reveals something about the majesty of the third-person form at the height of its 19th century power. The lilt of her neutral voice is so close to the soul of Eliot — reasoned, patient, seeing everything, missing nothing. It is the voice not of a goddess but of a female god.
Of course at some point it becomes necessary to consult the text, if only to see how to spell Casaubon (Stevenson pronounces it Kah-Sór-Bin). Certain sentences that are pure pleasure to hear aloud demand to be seen in print as well. Take, for instance, the start of Casaubon’s explosive love letter to Dorothea, which, in order to write, he has taken time out of his ongoing work on the no-doubt lengthy book, The Key to All Mythologies:
For in the first hour of meeting you, I had the impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need (connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate); and each succeeding opportunity for observation has given the impression an added depth by convincing me more emphatically of that fitness which I had preconceived, and thus evoking more decisively those affections to which I have but now referred.
As Casaubon's young cousin and future rival, our erstwhile hero Will Ladislaw, Stevenson allows herself touches of quivering self-pity, reminding us (as does Eliot herself) that a female scribe will often see colors a man might prefer not to. Eliot’s depiction and understanding of the male ego stands out in its century and for all time.
Nor does Eliot eschew the folly of the female ego. The pleasure that the pretty, spoiled Rosamond Lydgate (nee Vincy) takes in a visit from husband’s well-born relatives, for instance, is infinitely recognizable to anyone who has allowed him or herself even a moment of divine snobbery:
For to Rosamond this visit was a source of unprecedented but gracefully concealed exultation. She was so intensely conscious of having a cousin who was a baronet’s son staying in the house, that she imagined the knowledge of what was implied by his presence to be diffused through all other minds; and when she introduced Captain Lydgate to her guests, she had a placid sense that his rank penetrated them as if it had been an odor.
The step-by-step dissolution of Rosamond’s storybook marriage to the country physician Lydgate is measured out in the smallest of caviar spoons. Their first disagreements, about control as much as the necessity of material comforts, blossom into full-scale marital war once Lydgate finds himself in debt. As Rosamond's response to sacrifice is to do everything possible to avoid it, Lydgate comes face to face with “the terrible tenacity of this mild creature,” writes Eliot.
There was gathering within him the amazed sense of his powerlessness over Rosamond. His superior knowledge and mental force, instead of being, as he had imagined, a shrine to consult on all occasions, was simply set aside on all practical questions. [...] Lydgate was conscious of new elements in his life as noxious to him as an inlet of mud to a creature that has been used to breathe and bath and dart after its illuminated prey in the clearest of waters.
I am not alone in finding this microscopic charting of relationship equilibrium as more of a woman’s provence than a man’s. About Eliot Virginia Woolf wrote: “She was the pride and paragon of all her sex.” To say that no man could have written Middlemarch is meaningless; the person who wrote it is the only person who could have written it. A listener may feel, hearing Stevenson, that no one else should read Eliot aloud, or, at least, that no else needs to.
Laurie Winer is a long-time journalist who has been on staff at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. She is a founding editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.