84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is another of my favourite comfort reads. I’ve read it many times since I first discovered it over 20 years ago. It’s the story of the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York after WWII & Frank Doel, a bookseller working at Marks & Co, a bookshop in the Charing Cross Road in London. The correspondence begins in 1949,
Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase “antiquarian bookseller” scares me somewhat as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions… I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean secondhand copies of any of the books on the list for no more than $5 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?
Very truly yours,
Helene Hanff’s taste in literature was formed by reading Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s lectures on English literature (a journey she describes in Q’s legacy). She had grown up in Philadelphia & moved to New York to be a playwright. She wrote plays, TV scripts & also worked as a script reader as well. She lived frugally in a one-bedroom apartment but her one luxury was books. She wanted to read essays by Robert Louis Stevenson, Leigh Hunt & Walter Savage Landor. She wanted to read John Donne’s Complete Sermons & George Bernard Shaw’s letters to Ellen Terry. She didn’t want to read fiction because, “ I never can get interested in things that didn’t happen to people who never lived.” Helene is a sassy New Yorker, not shy in venting her wrath from 20,000 miles away,
All I have to say to YOU, Frank Doel, is we live in depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop = a BOOKSHOP – starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper… You tore that book up in the middle of a major battle & I don’t even know which war it was.
Then there was the incident of the Pepys’ Diary,
WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?
This is not pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary may he rot. I could just spit. Where is jan.12 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker? … i will make do with this thing till you find me a real Pepys. THEN i will rip up this ersatz book, page by page, AND WRAP THINGS IN IT.
Frank is more reserved at first, but finally decides to drop the formality of Miss Hanff after three years of correspondence & she also received letters from the other staff at the bookshop & from Frank’s wife, Nora.
Helene found a kindred spirit in Frank Doel & the other employees at Marks & Co. She sent them food parcels when she discovered the meagre rations the British were surviving on after the war. They sent her a book of Elizabethan poetry & a beautifully embroidered linen tablecloth. They became friends even though they had never met. Helene’s plans to visit England for Elizabeth II’s coronation were foiled by her need to have a lot of very expensive dental work. By the time she was able to get there, in the 1970s, Frank had died & the shop was closed. Helene wrote about her trip to England, paid for by the book, in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, where she was amazed by the generosity of so many strangers who had read & loved 84 Charing Cross Road. The letters were written with no thought of publication but after Frank’s death, an editor who heard about the letters, encouraged her to make a book of them. The book was an immediate success, a Cult Book as Helene calls it, & has been made into a play & a film.
This is another example of a film being as good as the book. Anne Bancroft’s husband, Mel Brooks, bought her the film rights as a gift because he knew how much she loved it. Anne Bancroft & Anthony Hopkins are just perfect in the film along with a cast of wonderful actors in minor roles. Maurice Denham never fails to move me in his few brief scenes along with Ian McNeice & Judi Dench. I also have the audio book read by Juliet Stevenson & John Nettles.
The beautiful illustrations are from my Folio Society edition & are by Natacha Ledwidge. I love her work. She also illustrated the Folio Society editions of Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey books.
Helene’s enthusiasm & love for English literature is what makes this book so special. Her voice is so distinctive & her passion for books is so strong that book lovers everywhere can identify with her love of learning & her desire to read the great writers. Anglophiles everywhere love this book & I’m happy to be one of them.