Recordings Preserve the Voices of British Authors

We will never know what Shakespeare sounded like when he spoke. He lived, of course, 300 years before the advent of sound recordings. And while it is surely the voice on the page—or the stage—that matters most, there is something irresistible about hearing the cadences and tone, accent and pitch, of our favorite authors. The voice of Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, has a husky Scottish twang—more akin to Sean Connery than to Doyle's clipped, upper-class character Sherlock Holmes. In the only known recording of his voice, Doyle seems exasperated by his creation, for whom he even fielded marriage proposals. "To many he seems to be a real person," he says. "His autograph, also, is much in demand."

Doyle died just two months after the recording was made in 1930, on the cusp of the audio era. He is just one of the literary greats included on "The Spoken Word: British Writers," a compendium of largely unheard tapes released on compact disc by the British Library and the BBC. The radio broadcasts from the library's vast sound archive bring to life writers from E. M. Forster to Ian Fleming. "Before 1900 there was almost nothing [recorded]," says the British Library's Richard Fairman, who has spent the past 18 months on the project. "At the beginning they didn't archive anything. They didn't see it as something for posterity. The broadcasts were all live. They went out and they were gone."

Early radio was a formal affair, and some of the recordings reflect it. During the 1930s, men on air at the BBC had to don black tie before taking the microphone, and interviews were rare. Instead, authors were asked to prepare and read speeches. Virginia Woolf's musings on language—the only surviving tape of her voice—appear here, spirited but starchy: "Only after the writer is dead do his words to some extent, only to some extent, become disinfected, purified of the accidents of the living body," she says.

To the modern ear the vintage style can sound stilted and a bit disappointing. James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, is distant and short; he claims the only reason he started writing novels is because he failed at almost every other profession. His interviewer's questions hardly help loosen him up: "Mr. Fleming, where were you born?" he asks. Even John le Carré, master of the psychological spy thriller, is dry and elusive, discussing the "small tragedies of institutional life" from his time at the British Foreign Office.

But in the best cases, the recordings add nuance and depth to the authors' work. In discussing his conversion to Roman Catholicism at 30, Evelyn Waugh comes across as a more complex and thoughtful character than the cynical, detached author of "Brideshead Revisited." "There is good in a decadent world," he muses in the 1960 interview. The novelist Graham Greene confesses to playing Russian roulette with a loaded pistol as a young man "for excitement, to get away from the boredom." Greene also confides that he often felt hunted "like a rabbit"—a recurring motif in his work—and was plagued by self-doubt. "I find in nearly all my books there's a dead point: a character that doesn't come alive," he says.

The spoken word is gaining potency in literary circles. As fiction and poetry sales slide, contemporary authors are taking to the airwaves. The British poet laureate, Andrew Motion, has spent the past decade compiling an online poetry archive, in part to attract the YouTube generation with audiovisual content. Fairman, who also compiled a series of recordings of American authors ranging from Gertrude Stein to F. Scott Fitzgerald, says his next project will be a similar kind of poetry compendium. The British Library's sound collection holds about 1 million discs and 200,000 tapes—including some buried gems, like an incredible recording of Tennyson reciting "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in 1890 .

Compared with poets, it's rare to find novelists reading their work on tape. They tend instead to speak of the forces that shaped them. In Doyle's only encounter with the microphone, he glosses over his masterpiece, Sherlock Holmes, and goes straight to his passion: spiritualism. He explains his eccentric penchant for communicating with the dead as an attempt to contact those fallen in the First World War. Doyle's own son fought at the Somme and died from pneumonia in 1918. His crackling extract is a similar glimpse at a life now gone. But his voice and the others recorded remind us of the enduring quality of their writing, which remains forever vital.