Literary Time Capsule On CD

In a rich voice that leaps across the decades, Virginia Woolf ponders the power of words. A self-deprecating Arthur Conan Doyle describes the doctor on whom he modeled Sherlock Homes. Robert Browning pauses while reciting one of his poems, admitting he can't remember the words but is thrilled to speak into a recorder.

At a time when Britain's most celebrated literary output is the Harry Potter series, some of its most famous writers can be heard on a pair of CDs that draw on rare recordings, some from the earliest days of audio technology.

"We know that when all the men who do things have done them, and after all the men who say things about those doings have said them, it is only words ... that live to show the present how men worked and thought in the past," Rudyard Kipling said in a 1933 speech, his slightly high-pitched voice enunciating every syllable. "And we do not know whose words they will be."

One disc features poets, the other novelists such as E.M. Forster, Agatha Christie and Noel Coward. All were born before 1900.

British Library curators dug through their sound archives, which are among the world's largest, to create the "Spoken Word" compilations, each more than 70 minutes long.

"People are taken with the idea of getting a closer source, and this is really as close as you can get — the idiosyncrasies of authors reading their own works," said Steve Cleary, lead compiler of the CDs and curator of drama and literature at the library's sound archives.

The compilation includes a notorious but little-heard broadcast that P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves, made on German radio after being captured by the Nazis in France during World War II.

Wodehouse was widely pilloried in his native Britain for broadcasting from Berlin and supposedly serving Hitler's propaganda machine.

"Perhaps people assumed the worst," said Cleary. "The content is in fact innocuous."

In the only surviving recording, the writer says nothing in support of Germany or Nazism — in fact, his dry recounting of events pokes gentle fun at his collaborationist French jailers.

The prisoners, Wodehouse recalls in plummy, aristocratic tones, were stripped to their underwear "and generally made to feel like so many imprisoned pieces of cheese. All they did to us was to take away our knives and money and leave us."

The excerpt from Woolf's 1937 talk on BBC radio is the only known surviving recording of her voice, the British Library said.

"Words are full of echoes, memories, associations," she says in a deep, rich voice, reflecting on the difficulty of finding original ways to say things. "They've been out and about on people's lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries."

Woolf's lover, Vita Sackville-West, is heard reading an unpublished passage from Woolf's novel "Orlando."

Conan Doyle describes the medical school mentor on whom he modeled Sherlock Holmes.

Dr. Joseph Bell, he recalled, "had most remarkable powers of observation. He prided himself that when he looked at a patient he could tell not only their disease, but very often their occupation and place of residence."

"I thought I would try my hand at writing a story where the hero would treat crime as Dr. Bell treated disease and where science would take the place of chance," Conan Doyle said.

The Victorian era collides with the 20th century in the discs' earliest snippet, an 1889 recording Browning made at a dinner party. Shouting into a bullhorn attached to a wax cylinder, the 76-year-old poet recites the opening lines of his works, then halts.

"I'm ... sorry, but I can't remember me own verses," he says. "But one thing that I shall remember all me life is ... your wonderful invention."