Here is a book about the love of books and about generosity and how together they developed into a warm friendship between many people. That is the pleasure of reading 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.
We have reached the 1970s in the Decades Project featuring non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury. This book is not especially important in the history of women or of Anglo-American relations. But it has a great charm and its popularity has endured since its publication in 1971. Helped by a film with good-looking actors.
84 Charing cross Road
84 Charing Cross Road is a book of letters. Mostly it is the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York and Frank Doel, who worked at Marks & Co at the eponymous address in London. Helene Hanff first wrote to request copies of books that were difficult to find in New York at the end of the Second World War. Marks & Co was a second hand and antiquarian bookshop.
October 5, 1949
Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialise in out-of-print books. The phrase ‘antiquarian book-sellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books, and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up school-boy copies.
I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean seondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?
Very truly yours,
(Miss) Helene Hanff
The books she wanted were non-fiction: Hazlitt essays, Oxford verse, and so on. Helene Hanff was a writer, of articles, tv scripts and children’s history books. She did not earn a great deal from her writing.
The responses came first from FPD, later Frank Doel, finally Frank. At first Frank Doel was formal and scrupulous in his replies. But as she responded with wit and warmth to the books she received or did not receive, he dropped the reserve.
The turning point in the relationship, turning it from a commercial transaction to a friendship, was when Helene Hanff sent a food parcel containing ham at Christmas 1949 to the staff of Marks & Co. Rationing continued in Britain until1953, so she continued to send food parcels.
Here are some examples:
Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing. You are just sitting AROUND.
he has a first edition of Newman’s University for six bucks, do I want it, he asks innocently.
Yes I want it.
To All at 84, Charing Cross Road:
Thank you all for the beautiful book. I’ve never owned a book with pages edged all around in gold.
Gradually other members of staff began to write to Helene Hanff, for they too benefited from the food parcels. Frank Doel’s wife joined in and even their neighbour. Helene Hanff clearly had the gift of creating a community even through the vagaries of the British and American postal services.
And then in January 1969, not quite twenty years after that first letter Helen Hanff received this letter.
I have just come across the letter you wrote to Mr Doel on the 30thSeptember last, and it is with great regret that I have to tell you that he passed away on Sunday 22ndDecember, the funeral took place last week on Wednesday the 1stJanuary.
… Do you still wish us to try and obtain the Austens for you?
What is special about 84 Charing Cross Road?
The pleasure in this correspondence is the evident love of reading and the love of books. Another pleasure is to see the beneficial effects of generosity of spirit. And the death of Frank Doel was not the end of it. This book was published two years later. The chief correspondents had never met, but she had always wished to visit London, and now she had friends to meet. When she could finally afford the airfare she visited to celebrate the publication of this book. Following her London visit Helene Hanff wrote The Duchess of Bloomsbury, included in the edition I read.
And then in 1987 there was the film, starring Anthony Hopkins at his warmest as Frank Doel, and Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff. It is hard to reread the book without these two occupying my mental image of the writers. But they did an excellent job. And at least it wasn’t made into a rom-com with a happy-ever=after together ending.
Helene Hanff died in 1997. She was 79 years old.
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, first published by Andre Deutsch in 1971. I read the paperback edition published by sphere. 230pp
The Decades project on Bookword
In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.
Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:
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