Audio tapes

7th January 2000 at 00:00
Why are Elizabeth Gaskell's novels enjoying such a renaissance? Are her quiet domestic dramas sympathetic to modern ears? No bodices get ripped among the owners of her threadbare wardrobes; her characters wrestle with poverty, injustice and affairs of the heart.

The heroine of Wives and Daughters is devastated when her father remarries a vain woman to whom she - and after a while he, too - cannot relate.

Penelope Wharton reads an excellent abridgement for Penguin (pound;12.50) while Prunella Scales reads the unabridged version for Cover to Cover - pound;53.99 does not seem too much to pay for 26 hours' well-acted story-telling.

Gaskell's Cousin Phyllis is sympathetically read by Kenneth Branagh (Cover to Cover, pound;12.99). In this gentle family drama, the heroine is encouraged to fall in love with a handsome but fickle young man who then deserts her.

Christmas would have been incomplete without a new version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. This year Naxos does the honours with a superb reading by Anton Lesser, (pound;8.99). If you can bear to return to the season so soon, it will repay you handsomely.

Dickens scores again with the astonishingly versatile Miriam Margolyes reading the unabridged Oliver Twist (Cover to Cover, 12 cassettes pound;38.99). Draw a veil over Alan Bleasdale's self-indulgent ITV travesty, and intead, savour what Margolyes does with the real thing - Oliver's terrified treble, Bill Sykes's murderous growl, and the sulphurously evil tones of Fagin.

Finally, the Wilkie Collins revival grows apace. This master storyteller had a simple motto: "Make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em wait." His favourite book, The Woman in White, was inspired by a real event in his life. The novel depicts two women trying to cope with the machinations of two villains - one a dangerous combination of charm and callousness, the other a money-grabbing monster.

One of Collins's preoccupations was the shocking ease with which sane people could be incarcerated in asylums, and The Woman in White takes this theme to a dramatic and horrific conclusion.

While two expert readers - Nigel Anthony and Susan Jameson - provide this narrative, it takes three (Michael Pennington, Terence Hardiman and Carol Boyd) to deliver Collins's other great classic, The Moonstone.

Collins relished complicated plots, and The Moonstone is probably the most ingenious of all his mystery novels. The search for a mysterious stone leads an intriguing cast of characters into a murky world of theft, opium, suicide, and murder (Penguin pound;9.99 each, abridged). Perfect for long, cold, winter evenings.

Cover to Cover mail order on 01672 562255

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