It all began with a letter inquiring about second-hand books, written by Helene Hanff in New York, and posted to a bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road in London.
As Helene’s sarcastic and witty letters are responded to by the stodgy and proper Frank Doel of 84, Charing Cross Road, a relationship blossoms into a warm and charming long-distance friendship lasting many years.
Claire from Art & Soul and I read this as a read-along a couple of Friday’s ago and posed questions to each on Twitter as we read.
The questions we raised included stuff like: do we read the dates each time, what is book post, what would Helene make of Kindles, had we heard of any of the books she was ordering and did we think she would ever make it to England?
What begins as a simple request from an American book lover to an English book shop for some rare books develops into a twenty year correspondence and friendship.
“I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest.”
From the very start you are met with Helene’s directness and humour which is really likeable and on the flip side you get Frank’s utter British professionalism; who struggled to reduce addressing her from madam, to miss, to Helene.
There are some characters that are just randomly introduced and then some who are forgotten about or their whereabouts are no longer known. I would have liked to have known what happened to Cecily.
Often there are huge gaps between letters, and I would wonder if these letters were just missing because I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t have corresponded for 2 years. In fact, I would just have liked more letters. Each letter’s author has its own quite distinct voice and it was really quite lovely getting to know these people through their letters knowing they were real people and I loved the ladies sneaking letters to Helene without Frank’s knowing, and mentioning it in their letters.
One of my initial questions to Claire was about book post – what is book post?
Thanks Wordnik for solving the book post query:
“An arrangement in the British postal service by which books and printed matter other than newspapers, as well as manuscripts intended for publication, are conveyed at reduced rates of postage, when the wrappers are left open at the ends.”
Shame this arrangement isn’t still in existence as I suspect it would save us book lovers a fortune!
It was really quite sweet for Helene to be sending the food parcels, it must have been strange for the Americans to comprehend rationing after the end of the War.
What is such a shame is that Helene doesn’t make it to England in time to meet some of her correspondees which was incredibly sad and such a wasted opportunity, I did begin wonder whether she actually wanted to go even if she’d had the means, a sad ending that did make me fill up.
This edition also includes The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which is an account of Helene’s eventual visit to London during the summer of 1971 and is throughly enjoyable take on England through the eyes of an American. It made me laugh how she accepted any old invitation to dinner or lunch etc so she could save her money to extend her stay.
Learn more about Helene Hanff here