Fiona Pickles (real_world_recs)
, November 2009
I am the kind of person who has never been able to sit still long enough to cope with Jane Austen on the printed page and, having also in latter years suffered badly from eyestrain, I came to the conclusion that the only way I was ever going to be able to ‘read’ Austen properly was with my ears. This turned out to be a lucky decision, as it led me to the world of Naxos Audio Books and more precisely to the unabridged Austen readings given by Juliet Stevenson. And ‘precisely’ is here the perfect description; Ms Stevenson reads with a wonderful polished clarity and the kind of unhurried diction of which Austen herself would certainly have approved. Her pace is steady and thoughtful, every word enunciated beautifully—and her characterisations, although suggested rather than impersonated, are strong enough to give the different speakers more than enough individuality to avoid confusion.
In Sense and Sensibility, we get a very clear idea of Ms Stevenson’s range. She is least convincing with lower-class or servant characters but mercifully there are few of those; however her dashing, thoughtless Willoughby, her hesitant Edward and especially her tongue-tied but immensely earnest Brandon are triumphant, and her sly Lucy Steele, impetuous Marianne, bustling Mrs Jennings and soberly reflective Elinor are all even a purist could wish for.
The story, for anyone not familiar with it, centres on the Dashwood family—Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, and their widowed mother, all living in reduced circumstances in the country, plus half-brother John, his social-climbing wife Fanny and her two brothers. It is with the two elder girls’ romantic lives that the narrative is concerned; the course of Elinor’s attachment to Fanny’s brother Edward is pitted with obstacles, whilst that of Marianne’s to their handsome neighbour John Willoughby takes an even more disastrous turn. By degrees, however, both girls come to learn the same lesson—that neither ‘sense’ nor ‘sensibility’ is enough on its own to ensure happiness, and that both must be exercised in moderation.
Slipping into one of Juliet Stevenson’s Austen readings is like slipping into a warm bath at the end of a harsh day. It is a gentle, comforting experience, the perfect way to patch up tattered nerves and soothe aggravated spirits. One of her Naxos Audio Books would be an ideal companion for a long journey—Sense and Sensibility, for example, would occupy just under 13 hours in perfect tranquillity—or help to while away the hours whilst working on some tedious task. To some people this probably sounds boring, but to me it’s peace and calm and quiet all wrapped up in a box—and what more could one possibly ask for than that?