In this edition of "Books About Letters", the monthly series where I review books which are you guessed it about letters, we're taking a look at the bestselling letter loving "84 Charing Cross Road" by Helene Hanff.
When I was recommended this and "The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Society" (April blog here) in the New Year most folks were flabbergasted on Twitter to read that I had read neither. Being a letter collector and letter writer, they assumed, I should have had these two volumes well thumbed already. So I took to the internet (Ireland was still in a lockdown then that would last until May 2021) and I ordered myself the two.
In Hanff's "84 Charing Cross Road" are the twenty years of letters between Helene and the staff at Marks & Co. Antique Books in London, England. Mostly it's Helene's letters with Frank Doel of Marks & Co. I was more than halfway through the actual letters of my copy (which is two books in one: Hanff's "84 Charing Cross Road" and her "Duchess of Bloomsbury Street" travel diary) when I had to stop and do a bit of research. You see, I had thought this book was fiction. It turns out I was indeed wrong!
Helene Hanff was born in 1916 in Philadelphia and spent her adult life in New York until her death in 1997. In the 1940s she began writing to Marks & Co. in London, England for rare book she couldn't -- or didn't want to -- find in New York and began a long penpal-ship with Frank Doel. This friendship and others from the team at Marks & Co. is the basis of "84 Charing Cross Road" which became a book in 1971 and a film in 1987, with stage and television adaptations as well. In 1968 Frank died suddenly and never got to meet Helene in person, as she finally visited London in 1971 -- where she met Frank's widow Nora and daughter Shelia -- and chronicled in "The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street". Hanff was a writer, an intellectualist, and according to her "Duchess" -- an absolute ideal dinner guest!
I can imagine Hanff was a conversationalist to the degree that most eccentric New Yorkers are -- she wrote in "Duchess" about how she envied anyone who could read fifty books as she read one book, fifty times. in "84 Charing Cross Road" she told Frank that she appalled her friends by throwing out books she no longer enjoyed.
So yes, this book about letters is a double feature really in that it is a book about letters and a book about books -- perhaps it is meant to be the holy grail for me. I read these two slim books quickly thanking to Hanff's writing style and the overall pacing of the book. As with "The Guernsey Literary Peel and Potato Society" the structure of an epistolary makes for a fascinating narrative tool. I read every morning (much like the glamorous comedienne friend of Hanff's from "Duchess" who reads from 6am to 7am, every morning!) and with a novel told in letters, or in this case a collection of letters, one feels they could read 'one more' letter perhaps more than 'one more chapter'.
You get a clear impression -- not always the case with nonfiction -- that Hanff was not interested in glorifying herself on the page any more than she was in person (she had an aversion to her photograph being taken, though she did sit for a friend's painting of her while in England that summer) and she made me laugh when during "Duchess" she confessed that after being ferried around Oxford by well meaning hosts she had a 'bit of a temper tantrum' about not seeing what she wanted to see. In "84 Charing Cross Road" she writes an England still under ration orders and recovering from the 'Blitz'. She is someone who delights in books and writes a brilliant letter. A tour de force.
If either of the books don't make you want to get on a plane to London and spend a rainy month meeting playwrights, retired Colonels, or widows of dearly departed friends to explore nooks and crannies only known to you in films and postcards than my dear I am afraid you should clear your schedule. Clearly a re-read of this wonderful pairing is in order until you come to your senses and book your tickets.
You can join myself and The Hand Written Letter Appreciation Society on Twitter on Sunday July 11th, 2021 at 7:30PM GMT for a screening of the film inspired by the novel. Get your popcorn ready!
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Do you have a book in mind about letters you think I should read and review for "Books About Letters"? Let me know! Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.