84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is a book I first heard book lovers rhapsodising over about twenty years ago but I’d never really been tempted to read it for a couple of reasons – I’d never seen it secondhand and I usually only buy new books after much thought over whether I’d be sure to read them; and the nature of Hanff’s writing – epistolatory – and I’ve never been a big fan of reading letters meant for other people.
However, I saw a copy of the first book and on a whim decided to buy it. It wasn’t until I had a look at the back cover that I realised it included the second book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury; a nice bonus as it turned out because I thoroughly enjoyed the first!
84 Charing Cross Road
In 1949 Miss Helene Hanff of New York was in search of quality literature and not finding what she wanted where she was she wrote down a list of her ‘most pressing problems’ and sent it to a seller of rare and secondhand books in London.
Helene Hanff was a financially poor script-reader/writer with an antiquarian taste in books. When she was seventeen she tripped over the Cambridge professor, Quiller-Crouch (‘Q’) in a library and maintained that she owed her peculiar taste in books to that encounter.
For twenty years the brash and outspoken Hanff corresponded with Frank Doel requesting books and trying to puncture his proper British reserve. In his reply to her first letter he addressed her as ‘Dear Madam.’ The letter she sent back said, ‘I hope ‘madam’ doesn’t mean over there what it does here.’
‘Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND. Where is Leigh Hunt? Where is the Oxford Verse?
I have made arrangements with the Easter bunny to bring you an Egg, he will get over there and find you have died of Inertia.’
She insisted on sending cash via mail to pay for her books, and didn’t hold back if she wasn’t impressed with the books she received. She was appalled by conditions in post war Britain and wrote to an American friend over there and asked her to take four pairs of nylons around to the bookshop. She also sent food packages and apologised that America was a faithless friend, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve!
‘WHAT KIND OF A BLACK PROTESTANT BIBLE IS THIS?
Kindly inform the Church of England that they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written, whoever told them to tinker with the Vulgate Latin? They’ll burn for it, you mark my words.
It’s nothing to me, I’m Jewish myself’
I couldn’t imagine a book lover not enjoying reading this correspondence. I loved her style – upfront, full of satire and downright insulting at times but Frank Doel remained unperturbed.
i could ROT over here before you’d send me anything to read…what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?’
Over the years of their correspondence Frank’s family and the staff at the bookshop became involved exchanging letters and gifts. One Christmas Helene received ‘The Book Lover’s Anthology’ – a beautiful gold-embossed leather book with gold-tipped pages, that she said she’d keep until the day she died –
‘…happy in the knowledge that I’m leaving it behind for someone else to love. I shall sprinkle pencil marks through it pointing out the best passages to some book-lover yet unborn.’
For years Helene had planned a pilgrimage to London but it always had to be cancelled, usually due to lack of finances. 84 Charing Cross Road was published in America first and later a London publisher bought it for publication in England and he wanted her over there to help publicise the book. By this stage she was getting fan mail, offers of walking tours and even a personal guide to see her through Customs and Immigration when she arrived in London.
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street was written about this trip. She’d just had major surgery and could barely stand up at times but she went and had a wonderful time.
‘I tell you it’s insidious being an ersatz Duchess, people rushing to give you what you want before you’ve had time to want it. If I kept this up for more than a month it would ruin my moral fiber.’
Both books are delightful reads for book lovers, letter writers and those who appreciate old classics. They are also a testament to friendship.
Apparently, after the war there were too many books and not enough bookshop space so all the dealers in London BURIED hundreds of old books in the open bomb craters of London streets! What a tragedy.
Linking up with the 2021 Nonfiction Challenge at Book’d Out.
7) Hobbies – reading and collecting books 🙂