I stumbled across this book, hidden at the bottom of the pile, in a box of books at a second hand book shop. What attracted me to it was the cover – the letter design. I love looking at old letters, stamps and postcards. I find them really incredibly interesting, so I bought this book. I’m also the first to admit I’ve no idea who Helene Hanff is. I do now, and I absolutely loved this book.
Note: My copy of the book also contains The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, so I will also be reviewing this.
Firstly, 84 Charing Cross Road.
It is an epistolary novel, written in the form of letters to and from Helene Hanff and Frank Doel of Marks & Company. The correspondence spans from October 1949 to October 1969, New York to London, in less than 100 pages.
The first letter from Helene is a response to an advertisement for a book seller specialising in out of print books. At this stage, she knows nothing about Marks & Co in London, but she encloses a list of her “most pressing problems” – books she can’t find locally. They must be clean, and cost less than $5. When the books arrive safely at her New York apartment, she enlists the help of a neighbour to change the cost from dollars to British pounds.
“The phrase ‘antiquarian book-sellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive.”
Some of the most touching letters are sent and received during the war years, where the rations in London meant that food was limited. In America, things were different. Helene sends over a 6 pound ham for all the staff at 84 Charing Cross Road for Christmas. She also sends gifts for Easter.
“Now then. Brian told me you are all rationed to 2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month and I am simply appalled.”
As more letters, food parcels and books travel to and from London/New York, Helene gets to know more people from the book shop: Cecily, Megan, Bill and Nora, Frank’s wife and others. As well as books, the narrative also becomes a plea to get Helene to visit London.
“My dear, I do hope you get your wish to come to England. Why not save your pennies and come next summer?”
The relationship between Helene and Frank is based on mutual respect and fondness. Therefore, when Helene has a complaint, and she has a few within this little book, she writes honestly to Frank to express her feelings. From a structural point of view, it is interesting and rather realistic that Helene’s writing style changes at points this like. She writes in full capitals, or with no capitals at all. One example of this is when she requests a complete copy of Pepy’s Diary, but gets sent an incomplete or collected version. What is sweet, is the letter ends with the question of fresh or powdered eggs for Christmas. Harmony is restored.
“WHAT KIND OF 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.”
However, there comes a time when great sadness is explored within this book. There is a gap in time from Helene’s last letter dated 30th September and correspondence in January, this time from a different character. On the 8th January, Helene receives a letter from Joan Todd, a secretary from Marks & Co, bringing news of Frank’s death.
“It is with great regret that I have to tell you that he passed away on Sunday 22nd of December, he funeral took place last week on Wednesday 1st January. “
Helene, exclaims herself, how much 84 Charing Cross Road means to her, wishing her friend to “kiss it for me! I owe it so much.”
I loved this so much, it was utterly charming. It makes me think about the power of blogs and social media now, connecting people from all over the world. How much the world has changed! For me, the letter is still something special, and this is shown within this book. I wish I could have experienced something like this within my own life.
Secondly, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.
Again, this novel is an epistolary novel, this time written in the form of a diary. It takes place much later, in 1971, when Helene finally gets to visit London for the English publication of 84 Charing Cross Road.
It is in this book that she meets Nora, the wife of Frank of whom she has been corresponding with for over twenty years. Helene also fulfills her dream to visit a number of literary landmarks in London. These included Trinity College where John Donne often walked in the yard as well as Claridges. This book is a tour of England seen through the excited eyes of Helene, who had dreamed of this trip all her life.
“Theoretically, it was one of the happiness days of my life. The date was Thursday, June 17th, 1971; the BOAC lifted from Kennedy airport promptly at 10 A.M.; the sky was blue and sunny, and after a lifetime of waiting I was finally on my way to London.”
Helene leaves New York just days after leaving the hospital, full of excitement and expectations to finally see the country she has always wanted to visit. Naturally, Helene worries that no one will meet her, and makes a plan just in case. She reassures herself with the many letters she received from both her fans and her publisher. As planned, a gentleman was waiting for her arrival. This gentleman, The Colonel, was a fan of Helene’s book and happened to work at the airport.
“And there he was, a big, towering Colonel Blimp with a beaming smile on his face and both arms outstretched, waiting to get my dainty feet onto British soil.”
She finds her friends, Nora and Shelia and from there checks in to a hotel, hardly believing that she was in London. She decides, after advice, to keep a diary for her trip. The next day, Helene visits Mark & Co, which had sadly since closed down. As part of her books promotion, a photographer accompanied her to be interviewed and photographed with Nora about the correspondence between Helene and Frank.
“How about this, Frankie? I finally made it.”
The narration rapidly progresses from an array of interviews and book signings. However, soon enough, Helene had time to explore London at her own pace. She experiences a pub where Shakespeare once drank and drove past the Tower of London to witness the locking of the gates. She also meets up with her old friends from Texas who were also visits the city, and lunched at Claridges. Helene, was also able to meet Joyce Grenfall, an actress she had always admired, and also took a trip to Oxford with the Colonel. As well as this, Helene also met Leo Marks, the son of Marks who owned Marks & Co, and his wife Ena. As a portrait painter, Ena would eventually persuade Helene to sit for a portrait, as long as she sat outside. A rather touching moment was when Helene went to St. Paul’s Covent Garden where Ellen Terry’s ashes are.
“Just inside the door as I was leaving I came upon the most recent plaque: VIVIEN LEIGH D.1967 and I was suddenly moved to tears.”
Helene stayed in London for nearly a month, visiting every place she had ever read about. Helene embraced and enjoyed the sights and sounds of London. When it was time to head back to New York, a number of parties were thrown to say goodbye. On the plane to go home, Helene says goodbye to London, England, and focuses on life back in New York City.
“I sit here on the plane trying to see faces, trying to hold onto London, but the mind intrudes with thoughts of home: the mail piled up waiting for me, the people waiting, the work waiting.”
I loved this short book as well. The excitement of visiting a place you’ve always wanted to visit I can easily relate to. I loved reading about the sights and sounds of London, a city I adore. This book, as a collective, was absolutely charming. It’s very short, so can be read in a couple of hours. I would recommend this book to anyone, but you do need both 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street in order to not be disappointed.