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Long before the Internet, or even computers, New Yorker Helene Hanff started buying books from Marks & Co. in London, thereby beginning relationships that lasted for decades. Her account of this was made into the book "84 Charing Cross Road".
It is a rare instance when non-fiction reads like fiction, and Helene Hanff's book "84 Charing Cross Road" is exactly one of those exceptions. Long before the age of the Internet and on-line book sellers like Amazon, New York writer Hanff saw an ad in the Saturday Review of Literature for a second-hand book shop called Marks & Co, which was located on 84 Charing Cross Road, in London, England. As she was in need of some items that were either out of print or unavailable in the USA, on October 5, 1949 she decided to write to them. This began a more than 20 year-long international relationship between Hanff and the store's employees, and in particular, one Frank Doel.
Their story is accounted here through the correspondence between them, using the actual letters that they sent each other. While this may sound boring, Hanff's offhanded humor and impulsive nature make her dispatches endearing to the readers. This is in stark contrast to the more formal replies she receives from Marks & Co, who return using the most traditional British and businesslike fashion - at least to begin with. But Hanff's energy and wit slowly break down the reserve from across the ocean. Soon she is not only sending cheering missives and funds to purchase the books, but also gifts of appreciation - partially to help brighten up the lives of these people living through post-war rationing. As they continue to write each other, we watch their friendship blossom. While their professional association gives them the initial reason to correspond, it is increasingly enhanced with personal connections which make both parties become more human and real, both to each other and to the reader. This is what makes this book so charming, and such a delightful read.
However, some might think that a book written about things that happened over 60 years ago, about a correspondence between continents may seem irrelevant today. On the contrary, watching this bond grow despite never having met face-to-face is something that we today can easily relate to. The Internet has made the world such a smaller place than it was before. Today we take for granted how we can become friends with people we've never met, just because we share similar interests. And while this relationship never resulted in any romance, Helene and Frank's worlds became as intertwined as if they had. So reading this book today would be no less enjoyable than when it was first published in 1970.
What this book has in spades is an enormous helping of good hearted humanity and honest humor, and that's what makes it so readable. As mentioned at the outset, one could almost believe that these people are fascinating characters in a work of fiction. Knowing that they really existed makes the reader feel even closer to these people. What's more, as the letter progress, we can witness how these people developed in their separate lives, as well as within their connection, which is exactly what you'd expect from a well written novel.
So while sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, the reality of Hanff's "84 Charing Cross Road" is as endearing as any person you'll come across - both in real life, and in the imagination of a writer. Of course, because this is about real people, it isn't all laughs. Since the reader is able to connect to Helene and Frank so closely, you could find yourself shedding a tear along the way, in addition to the parts that make you laugh out loud. In short, "84 Charing Cross Road" is a book that writers will adore; book lovers will embrace; and one to delight any and all readers, on both sides of the "pond". I'll give it a full five stars out of five and highly recommend it.
My favourite cousin recommended this to me saying 'It's about this mad American woman who writes to a secondhand bookshop in London just after the war and orders books. She gets to know the people who work at the bookshop and sends them food parcels and they send her little gifts - it's great fun, you must read it.'
So I did reading and after doing so I looked it up on the internet and found that it's a cult classic and everyone absolutely adores it.
Well I don't adore it. I enjoyed it, yes, and it is something special in that it is a compilation of real letters between people who never imagined they would be published. And it's wonderful to see how the flamboyant American woman and the traditional Englishman warm to each other through their letters. Helene Hanff writes well and is just like you would imagine a batty old aunt to be. Frank Doel, chief book buyer for Marks and Co, the bookshop she writes to, is a typical Englishman, who writes delightful letters - terribly polite and stiff upper lipped. It's a joy to see him slowly relax into a more friendly style of correspondence. It also brought a lump to my throat how this quite poor American sends food parcels and nylons to the staff at the bookshop and how every member of the staff starts writing to her in return.
I think the reason I wasn't bowled over by it is quite an unfair reason really - the thing is there are big gaps between letters, especially towards the end of the 20 year correspondence. I realise that being a compilation of real letters this is inevitable but as a reader I want to know what happened in the gaps. What happened to Cecily and Mr. Marks and all the other people who flit in and out of the letters. I suppose I want it to be a 'story' and it isn't. It's a delightful glimpse of the friendship between two very different people and needs to be taken as that.
In that sense I enjoyed the sequel 'The Duchess of Bloomsbury' more. This is the diary Helene Hanff kept when she finally visited London after the publication of 84 Charing Cross Road. By this time Frank Doel had died and Marks and Co is closed but thanks to her book, she has become a minor celebrity. Her fans and friends pitch in to show her round the England she has dreamed of and being a literature-loving immigrant Londoner myself, I identified with her excitement at seeing London for the first time. Being a diary/ travelogue and possibly written with the idea of publication, it's far more 'complete' and gives a lovely snapshot of her trip to England.
Overall, I enjoyed both books but perhaps not as much as I could have or should have. I'm now reading 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society' which is similar in some ways but clearly a work of fiction - we'll see how I get on with that and whether I enjoy that more.
Sometimes life can be perverse! Outside the warm sun was shining and the sea sparkling and inviting on the first seasonal summer Saturday we had been blessed with in quite a while. Inside I was suffering a headache, sneezing, shivering and generally lacking any energy to get out and enjoy it! I clicked on the television and there on the Freeview guide the words 84 Charing Cross Road sprang out to greet me bringing memories flooding back. I wrapped myself in a duvet, curled up on the settee and got lost in that gentle and wonderful film. When it finished I wanted more and went in search of the book that I first read twenty five or so years ago and have re-read on several occasions. I was relieved that, when I moved in 2004 and cleared out many of my books to a charity shop, I had the foresight to retain this particular title. Its well thumbed and the dust aggravated my sneezing at first but the rest of my weekend was happily spent revisiting its yellowing pages!
~~~84 CHARING CROSS ROAD (London)~~~
For many years, this was the address of Marks and Co, an antiquarian book shop which opened in 1904 and ceased trading in 1970 but is immortalised in this slim volume. Its simply a collection of letters which details the trans-Atlantic relationship which developed between the book's author/compiler, Helene Hanff, a forthright, brash, but extremely likeable, New York writer and the staff of Marks and Co, in particular the manager, Frank Doel, a correct, restrained and very English gentleman. The correspondence stretches over twenty years, starting in 1949 when Helene, having seen an advertisement in a literary journal, writes to request certain obscure titles and ending in 1969 when she receives the sad news of Franks sudden death.
Gradually Helene becomes involved with the staff and their families. She sends food parcels when she learns of the scarcities in post war Britain, arranges for a friend to deliver nylons for the girls and generally entertains them with details of her life in Manhattan. They reciprocate by zealously acquiring the titles she requires and offering advice, sending letters of gratitude acknowledging her generosity and returning small gifts which delight her.
Frank is her main correspondent throughout and the stiff punctilious style of his prose contrasts sharply with her vibrant informality as she teases and cajoles him sometimes with praise and thanks but also with rebukes and sarcasm. Frank melts over the years as he gradually opens up to this fascinating lady and his letters come to include details of his life and news of his wife, Nora and their daughters. Eventually, after ten years communication, he abandons his usual yours faithfully and yours sincerely signatures in favour of with love.
Helenes writings are almost stream of consciousness in their construction and full of humour. She wins a grant to produce history dramatisations and announces her intention to start with a script about new York under seven years of British occupation and indignantly proclaims, I marvel at how I rise above it to address you in a friendly and forgiving fashion, your behaviour over here from 1776 to 1783 was simply FILTHY
Some of the literary references are hard going and many, I suspect, unintelligible to those who did not achieve a Masters or above in English literature but again they are interspersed with down to earth observations! On receiving Waltons Lives, Helene writes did you knew John Donne eloped with the bosss highborn daughter and then landed in the Tower for it and starved and starved and THEN got religion , my word.
Franks replies never really rise to the heights of humour but his factual, precise and sometimes slightly ironic mode of expression provides an admirable straight-man foil to Hanffs comedic ramblings as they develop a mutual respect and affection which is remarkably endearing.
Helene is determined to visit England to meet up with her pen-pal and his associates but her various plans get thwarted by financial crises. The poignancy of the story is that she doesnt make it to London until 1971, after the bookshop has closed its doors, Frank has died and this book, dedicated to his memory, has been published.
~~~THE DUCHESSE OF BLOOMSBURY STREET~~~
Published in 1974 as a separate title, this is now invariably reproduced as part of 84 Charing Cross Road as it contains Helenes account, written in diary form, of her 1971 London visit. Ironically, the visit was mainly financed by Deutsch, the English publishers of the original work, who invited her over to help publicise its launch.
It is the consummation of Helens long distance love affair with England, and particularly London, born of her admiration for English literary achievement. She enjoys all the benefits of being a minor celebrity, interviewed for newspapers and the BBC and entertained and feted by the likes of Joyce Grenville. She finally meets Franks widow, Nora and his daughters with whom she has also developed a close bond over the years and visits 84 Charing Cross Road, dusty and empty but with copies of her book displayed in the window. Here she describes herself standing on the stairs in remembrance and silently saying How about this, Frankie? I finally made it!
She gets caught up with exploring the familiar streets and sights and her descriptions display an almost naïve excitement. Her humorous and quirky observations on London landmarks, its people , its language, its customs and conventions are made with such lively and informal enthusiasm that even the capitals most ardent detractors cant fail to warm to. It makes for a delightful read and not only gives a deeper understanding of the writer but also achieves a measure of closure on the sadness of the ending of the original work.
The original book was published in 1971 which coincidentally was the year I moved to London to start my first proper job working in Westminster. When I first read the dual volume in 1974, it was rapidly gaining something approaching cult status and it reflected the delight and excitement I felt living in that buzzing historical hub! Therefore, although I immediately loved the little tome, it was difficult to make an objective assessment of its merits.
A decade later, when motherhood allowed me the luxury of listening to afternoon Womans Hour on Radio 4, I was spurred on to make a pilgrimage into its pages by the regular contributions Helen Hanff made to that programme concerning her life in New York. By then I had lived away from London for some years and its attraction had palled. I still found it an enticing read but, maybe because of my hormones or the passing of the young, single, free and easy stage of my life, it left me with an overwhelming sadness.
Twenty years later and I still find it difficult to make a dispassionate appraisal of its literary worth or appeal. Maybe this is because reading of the book holds memories intrinsic to my own experiences or maybe it is a measure of the authors ability to draw you into her own personal experiences, - the triumphs and failures, excitement and disappointment, joys and sadness - by means of her candid and impromptu style.
I cannot but recommend it especially to the over fifties who are bound to enjoy it if only because it is provides quite a comfortable vehicle for reminiscences of the times it describes. But I hope that it will also have some appeal to younger readers as a piece of living history and a gentle love story not the love story of Frank and Helene, as some commentators have suggested, but the love story of one woman for the England she created in her imagination through her reading of those antiquarian books.
Prior to the publication of 84 Charing Cross Road, Helen Hanff had been writing plays that never got produced, while eking out a precarious existence reading scripts for Paramount Pictures, writing articles for encyclopaedias, television scripts, and children's history books. After publication, she continued writing into the 1990s. Her books included The Apple of My Eye (1978), a quirky look at New York, and Q's Legacy (1985) - about the work of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, whose essays found in a library first ignited her passionate love of English literature and A Letter From New York which consisted of reprints of the talks she gave to BBC Womans Hour between 1978 and 1985.
However she never again achieved the success which was hers following the publication of 84 Charing Cross Road. She died of pneumonia in 1997. The apartment building at 305 E. 72nd Street, where she lived for the last forty years of her life, has been named "Charing Cross House" in her honour. A bronze plaque next to the front door commemorates her residence and authorship of the book.
The book went on to be adapted for radio, television, stage and, finally, the 1987 film in which Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins skilfully and respectfully portray the characters of Helene and Frank.
I can find no record of what now occupies the site of Marks and Co but a brass plaque outside simply states:-
84 Charing Cross Road
The booksellers Marks and Co
Were on this site which became world renowned
Through the book by Helene Hanff
Many different versions of 84 Charing Cross Road are listed on Amazon. The most recent English paperback version appears by that published by Virago in 2002 ( ISBN978-1860498503 ). The recommended retail price is £7.99 but it is presently listed at £5.99.
84 Charing Cross Road is a series of letters charting the twenty-year correspondence between a would-be playwright in NY and Frank Doel, a London antiquarian bookseller. From such a modest premise, Helene Hanff has created something with an almost unique charm which continues to endure as a successful book, play and film.