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Why We Read (or Write About) Jane Austen by Harry Frost, Narrator

Updated: May 15

Harry Frost with headset and microphone reading a script
Why we read (or write about) Jane Austen by Harry Frost

JaneAusten's body of work delivers a nuanced understanding of life—especially as a woman, family dynamics, insights into the historical context of the period, and the social norms between men and women. For the last two decades, I have been fascinated by Austen’s diverse and massive fan following, scholars, and writers, and I love discovering why her words and characters still resonate with so many these two hundred years later. Over the next twelve-month, I plan to feature one Austen fan a month to offer their thoughts.

My first guest is the popular British voice actor Harry Frost. I first met Harry in 2018 when he narrated my first multi-author anthology, The Darcy Monologues. Amidst an extraordinary field of talented voice actors, Harry Frost is incomparable. His rich voice and excellent pacing make for the perfect Mr. Darcy. However, in a huge multi-era project like The Darcy Monologues, Frost really shines by showing his range and imagination, immersing himself in a cast of many from Regency England to modern-day United States. I was lucky to work with him again on the Yuletide anthology too.

Harry shares his unique perspective on Austen and the task of bringing characters on the page to life. If you prefer, you can hear the following on his YouTube Channel here.

By Harry Frost

“She read aloud with very great taste and effect. Her own works, probably, were never heard to so much advantage as from her own mouth” —Henry Austen, 1818.

To say that audiobooks "bring a story to life" may appear, at first glance, to be just one among the many dictums of Captain Obvious (that perspicacious mariner). But there are depths to it.

The superficial meaning, the one which I first thought of when I started as a professional narrator in the summer of 2018, could more properly be phrased backwards: "bringing life to a story." The characters must be given voices tenderly lowered or raised in alarm, and such descriptions as “…she drawled, her time in Lisbon having added a touch of Portuguese to her Glaswegian accent” reveal their full, horrifying significance. The general narration, too, even that of an omniscient third person, can give up some of its detachment and reflect the performer’s own excitement during an action scene, their triumph at the slow fade out on the kiss, their numb horror as a much-beloved character breathes their last.

Jane Asten wearing white ear buds
Jane Austen with earbuds, Courtesy Beau North

In the context of Jane Austen, and especially in works concerning Pride and Prejudice, this raises the perennially contentious subject of what our various dear couples and the rest of the ensembles were really like. Considerable ink has been spilled, and keyboards battered, denigrating and defending this or that interpretation. The actor’s challenge—the challenge of any interpretive artist—is that you can only give one performance among all the many that are possible, and moreover, you can give most convincingly only the performance that occurs to you most readily from the text you are given.

As a reader, one’s image of what a character looks like has a certain elasticity. To choose two examples utterly at random, the hero may wear one face as he flexes his un-gloved hand after helping a young lady into a carriage, another as he emerges, somewhat damp, from a morning’s constitutional in the lake. As a performer, this elasticity perishes: you must be one or the other completely for the duration of the performance, and you are limited by who you are and what you know.

In this sense, while I personally love both delivering and listening to wholehearted interpretations of characters, I have a great deal of sympathy with those readers who avoid film and audiobook adaptations precisely because of the risk of disappointment that accompanies the binding of characters—infinitely complex in the imagination as one reads and re-reads—to just one face, one voice, one essence. The gift of life, in this sense, might not be so far from that which Mary Shelley has her eponymous hero give his creation, and certainly, in undertaking it, an actor has to be prepared to expect to find some kindness and sympathy in the world, yes, but also…pitchforks.

cellphone with "The Darcy Monologues" audiobook cover laying on open books
"The Darcy Monologues", a multi-author anthology, narrated by Harry Frost. Audiobook publication, 2018.

The second meaning of the phrase "bringing a book to life" is something I’ve come to more gradually and is, I believe, adequate compensation for the losses that come from having to see one’s dreams of a character made concrete. While reading is something one shuts the world out in order to do (that, indeed, is much of the attraction), reading aloud brings the book out of the library and into life as it is lived. Moreover, in a metaphor apt for the genre, a book read aloud is ushered into society from the schoolroom of the writer’s mind. Like a debutante, it must walk that treacherous middle way between conforming enough to avoid disgrace (i.e., displaying taste) while being sufficiently unique to be noticed (having an effect). Our opening quotation also reminds us that it was important to the author that her books were experienced socially, the better to put into practice a realization that she made early, if not necessarily first, among English novelists: simple outlandishness is no virtue, for all that it makes a thing stand out. What makes a good book (and a good performance) is the interplay between what the audience expects and what the work gives them. In that sense, the best creative works are always also interpretive, concerned not only with what their subjects are or do but what their nature and actions mean to the audience. In other words, the narrator’s dictum: "Sure, you say this is how it is, but how would that sound if you had to perform it?"

3 black and white images of same white male with headset, narrating into a microphone
Harry Frost, narrator based in the UK and working mainly through ACX (Audible) and Findaway Voice.

Seen in this light, the words of Austen’s most famous detractors seem more like compliments. Madame de Stäel’s one-word dismissal "vulgaire," which we could gloss as "for ordinary people," is scarcely the cutting remark today that she intended in the 1810s. Charlotte Brontë’s famous description of Pride and Prejudice as “An accurate, daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully-fenced, highly-cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers,” sounds positively pleasant to me, and the things whose absence she laments—"bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck”—don’t sound like great losses. More to my point, though, what would it be like to read aloud a book that wasn’t written for ordinary people? In nine drawing rooms out of ten, would anyone laugh at the jokes? What could a performer do to make physiognomy more vivid, hills more blue, becks more bonny beyond simply relaying the text’s assertion that they were so? Above all, how far can one "bring to life" things that are not readily to be found in life as the audience experiences it?

My first literary love was Fantasy and Science Fiction, and anyone who knows me might reasonably challenge me on that last part. Certainly, there is real pleasure in injecting a bit of fantasy into one’s everyday life, and the concept of ‘escapism’ has by now graduated from armchair psychology to thoroughgoing literary criticism. For me, though, the magic of an Austenesque book is that it takes what looks very like reality and, from nothing but the ingredients that comprise us and everyone we’ve ever known, makes real life look like something from which you would never want nor need to escape. Really, after having spent the last five years bringing these kinds of books to life in both the senses I’ve described—being able to spend long portions of my days doing nothing but receiving, interpreting, and transmitting messages about what it is to be human—I rather feel that the genre has done a great deal to bring me to life in return.

black and white photo of white male wearing white button-down
Harry Frost, British narrator, Bellows Audio, owner


Former boarding school scholarship boy, my voice is 100% genuine British RP. I got my BA in Literature in 2010 from the University of Exeter and, of course, instantly got a job in a cocktail bar. Then, I was a market analyst and took a master’s in economics and international Relations in 2018 before finding narration full-time. My repertoire includes 134 characters and counting, and I speak Italian, French, and a bit of German.

I am the narrator of many Austen variations on Audible, most recently Jann Rowland’s Only Exceedingly Shy, the audio version to release March 26. You can pre-order at Audible.

My wife Jade and I live with our daughter in the English countryside. She’s the center of our world, and I absolutely adore her. She gets a heavily discounted rate on bedtime stories. Connect with Harry via his website.

4 commentaires

Anji Dee
Anji Dee
28 mars

I’ve been exceedingly derelict in not commenting on this most excellent article before now. Harry, you are one of my select list of narrators/performers of audiobooks who I know will never disappoint me with your performance. Ever since The Darcy Monologues, I’ve thought that your voice was a perfect fit for Austenesque fiction, no matter the setting or time period and I’m really happy to see that it’s now become a full time role for you.

P. S. Sci-fi/fantasy was my also first literary love. More or less since I learnt to read, “speculative fiction” was my favourite genre. It wasn’t until the advanced age of 11(!) that I discovered the works of Jane Austen and much later still (2014)…

En réponse à

Anji D, So glad you stopped by. I agree—Harry Frost is a remarkable talent, and I am so glad he has built his fan base up over these last couple years. I listen to most any he narrates, even when the book is not in my usual genre of choice!


Thanks, Harry, for sharing your thoughts on the multiple layers of bringing a book to life! I've enjoyed your narrations very much!

En réponse à

I have watching his star rise and look forward to hearing more of his work.

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