84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Reviewed by Simon

84 Charing Cross RoadSlightly Foxed Editions – and I never tire of saying how beautiful they are – offer two different, wonderful things to the world. Either they are an introduction to brilliant memoirs that were undiscoverable and unknown, or they give the opportunity to have much-loved classics in that inimitably lovely series. And, of course, 84 Charing Cross Road appears in the latter category.

There can’t be many bibliophiles who aren’t already aware of this gem, but for the sake of this review I will assume there are some. It is the non-fiction letters between Hanff and Frank Doel, who worked in Marks & Co bookshop on Charing Cross Road. This area of London is renowned for its secondhand and antiquarian bookshops (though no.84 is now, I am sad to say, a Pizza Hut) and Hanff found their advert in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1949. She was writing, you see, from New York. In the days before the Internet, she didn’t let the Atlantic get in the way of finding the books she wanted.

It starts in a fairly businesslike fashion – she writes off to them with a list; Frank Doel sends back the books he can find (even going to the extent of seeking out anthologies containing specific essays she requests – not something that would happen today, one suspects!). In her second letter Hanff writes ‘I hope “madam” doesn’t mean over there what it does here.’ That is a sign of things to come; the first spark of her personality.

As the exchange goes on, she becomes sparkier. Here is an example of excerpts from two letters that they sent each other in October 1951:

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 bedoom with a red-hot poker?

where is sir w. pen’s son that was giving everybody so much with his Quaker notions? ONE mention does he get in this whole pseudo-book, and me from philadelphia.

i enclose two limp singles, 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.

and the reply came…

Dear Miss Hanff,

First of all, let me apologize for the Pepys. I was honestly under the impression that it was the complete Braybrooke edition and I can understand how you must have felt when your favourite passages missing. I promise to look at the next reasonably priced copy that comes along, and if it contains the passage you mention in your letter I will send it along.

As you see – their styles are somewhat different. I must be fair to Hanff, in case you’re reading this exchange and thinking her (and her punctuation) monstrous. Her schtick is this sort of brash, funny, overblown writing – which only escalates when she gets a polite and mild response. Both parties are deeply affectionate in their way, while seeming to role-play the extreme stereotypes of the Brit and the American – and Hanff finishes this letter with a postscript asking whether they’d prefer fresh eggs or powdered eggs for Christmas, and remains aware of the rationing hardships faced by her correspondent. It makes her endearing, where a selfish woman with her manner would be appalling. As the exchange goes on, the mutual affection is very obvious – and Doel even warms up a bit.

Besides a lovely testament of friendship, there is much for the person (like me) who loves reading about books and reading. Hanff sticks largely to the classics, from Pepys to the Bible, from the Oxford Book of English Verse to Austen (‘You’ll be fascinated to learn – from me that hates novels – that I finally got around to Jane Austen and went out of my mind over Pride and Prejudice which I can’t bring myself to take back to the library till you find me a copy of my own.) You’re unlikely to unearth niche recommendations here, but never mind.

Their correspondence fades a little after its biggest flurry – as is so often the case – but ends only with the death of Doel; inevitable, but sad, of course. The second half of this book is The Duchess of Bloomsbury, which is often included with 84 Charing Cross Road (and just as often – as with the Slightly Foxed edition – ignored when it comes to putting the title on the spine or title page). It takes place after Doel’s death, when Hanff comes to London to see the place she was writing to; she and Doel never met in person. She also visits Oxford, which is fun for me, but this book – written in diary-style – doesn’t have the same value for me. Without the tempering effect of Doel’s stoical kindness, Hanff just comes across as rather rude and a tiny bit unpleasant; for example, she has tantrums when she can’t have an itinerary exactly the way she wants it. I’m sure she hadn’t changed as a person, but without the contrast with Doel, she is a bit too much to take – in The Duchess of Bloomsbury, at least; I have read other of her books where this isn’t true to the same extent.

But this cannot, and should not, diminish the joy of 84 Charing Cross Road. I wish more people would publish it alongside Q’s Legacy instead, a lovely book about the success of 84 Charing Cross Road and the subsequent film – but any which way you can get your hands on this book, do. And it is at its best in those beautiful edition.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and not unfamiliar with the remaining bookshops on Charing Cross Road.

Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (Slightly Foxed: London, 2015). 9781906562830, 240pp., hardback

3 Comments

  1. Lovely review Simon! I adore the book, and the thought of having it in a wonderful Slightly Foxed Edition is irresistible. Hanff was probably a difficult person to deal with in real life, but she’s certainly fun to read!

  2. Tui

    Great review, Simon, of a favourite read. I think a little of Helene would go a long way in real life, as you note, but greatly respected her love of books. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all had a Doel in our bookish lives, to aid and abet? When I read this many years ago, I made a promise to myself that if any of my English chums ever had to go through anything like that war again (heaven forbid), I too would send boxes of tinned ham. I forgave Hanff a lot of her bombast for those acts of kindness.

  3. Melissa

    Thank you, Simon! I love all the Hanff books and I agree that “Q’s Legacy” would be a wonderful companion to “84” because it gives a window into Helene’s self-education and love of literature.

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