My initial search for audio recordings came from a desire to be read to; after all, even when children can read on their own, there is something viscerally comforting about sharing a story in the company of another. Additionally, after working all day either reading or writing emails, engaging on the phone, and (less often now) in person, being read to is a rare gift. Moreover, as we have all experienced the "lock down" effects and isolation of COVID, the avenues by which we can feel connected can be brought forth by any number of creative means, including being read to by a person halfway around the world whom one has never met. Add to those factors a two-month period off of work after a total knee replacement in July, accompanied by the stultifying mental ennui that constant attention to physical recovery can elicit, and one has multiple reasons to be grateful for Librivox in general, and your recordings in particular.
The Cloister and The Hearth was my second Librivox book, and quickly became an addiction of sorts, accompanying me for hours on the treadmill and into sleepless nights. Allow me to insert an excerpt from a letter I wrote in August to my former English Professor, who has become a good friend as well:
This is all leading up to a book that has been, and continues to be, an informative and delightful companion during my recovery: The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade, with which I know you must be familiar. For me it was akin to finding a forgotten chocolate bar in the bottom of a kitchen drawer. What a fantastic piece of historical fiction! It takes me back to The Canterbury Tales, filling in the rich detail of everyday life. Although it is meant to take place in the fifteenth century (so is a bit later than Chaucer's lifetime, I am aware), there are so many familiar threads connecting what I learned in class. For example, the central role of Sancta Mater Ecclesia, the various religious orders, primogeniture practices which resulted in "one to inherit, one to fight, and one to the Church," as well as understanding what passed for "medicine" versus superstition versus herbal folklore. Reade shows how communities were policed and controlled—including swift sentences and gruesome punishments. In addition, modern people can barely imagine the dangers of travel and language barriers of the time, much less the widely varying conditions of what passed for hospitality from one place to another (more than one public house was so wretched, I thought that, had it been me, I would gladly have slept outside with the wolves.) There is even a Pardoner in the story!
The version I'm listening to is read by Tom Denholm, who has, to my ear, a masterful grasp not only of English, but also of French, Latin, Dutch and Italian. I appreciate that Reade does not translate the frequent Latin, as it gives my ear and mind a good workout; of course, context is quite helpful. So far, as of Chapter 75, my favorite character, by far, is Denys! I find Margaret to be worthy, but a bit simpering, and Gerard simple and a bit of a dolt: I mean to say, it is a bit unlikely that such a devoted man should not return to Holland immediately upon hearing of his wife's death, if nothing else than to grieve at her grave. So, although admirable in strength of character, I find the young couple rather flat characters. I also steam at the author's constant pronouncements on how women are put together—as though only by nature or by men's engagement can they be brought to fruitful use! I know that Reade was a product of the late nineteenth century, so I allow for that and try not to cringe overmuch.
I have to admit that Margaret was more than redeemed—or transformed—through suffering (Ad astra per aspera) such that by the end, her character showed a wisdom and maturity I did not expect—but heartily welcomed. Gerard, too, in his way, was redeemed.
Following the magnum opus of Cloister, I searched for other titles recorded by you. I appreciate the summaries you have written, in that they have widened my field of literature and, as a favorite author becomes a trusted source for new reading, you have become a trusted source for new listening. On the surface, I might not have opened Adam Bede, but trusted your assessment, and am very glad I did. I have only just finished listening tonight, and feel I have been on a satisfying journey through a particular time and place with wonderful guides. I am astonished at the range of voices your reading portrays, and am at loss as to how you manage to keep them straight and consistent throughout! Being a Yank, I especially enjoyed the dialects coming to life. Oh, my goodness, but Mrs. Poyser has a wit! Had I read the book myself, I would not have appreciated in any way the quirky, musical vernacular that flows like mystery, ending in comprehension.
Thank you for the incomprehensible number of hours you have dedicated to bringing these works to life. I look forward to my next Tom Denholm Librivox recording!