Tag Archives: Helene Hanff

The Second Year of the Decades Project

Eleven books, chosen from each of the decades from 1900 onwards, all nonfiction, all by women. That’s what the Decades Project has meant in 2018.

Young Woman with book Aleksandr Deineka 1934

The decade’s list

Here are the books I chose for 2018, with dates and links to the posts:

Home and Garden  by Gertrude Jekyll (1900)

My Own Story  by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

Testament of Youth  by Vera Brittain  (1933)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)

French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David (1951)

Silent Spring  by Rachel Carson (1962)

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1971)

The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman (1984)

Vagina Monologues  by Eve Ensler (1994)

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)

The variety

I am very pleased to have found such variety: memoir, cookery, theatre piece, polemic, and history. The choices reflect women’s wide involvement over the century, and also their influence. Some choices have been avowedly domestic, others about big historical events, or dangers. Several have a very personal focus, but all have something to say to us as we leave 2018.

The book I most enjoyed reading …

… was undoubtedly Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962). I had heard of it, about its impact upon people’s understanding of the ecology of the world, her warning about the indiscriminate use of pesticides, her fears for the planet. I had not expected it to be so lyrical, and I was truly shocked by the contents.

I had not predicted, for example, such pleasure from reading about soil and worms:

The soil exists in a state of constant change, taking part in cycles that have no beginning and no end. New materials are constantly being contributed as rocks disintegrate, as organic matter decays, and as nitrogen and other gases are brought down from the skies. At the same time other materials are being taken away, borrowed for temporary use by living creatures. Subtle and vastly important chemical changes are constantly in progress, converting elements derived from air and water into forms suitable for use by plants. In all these changes living organisms are active agents. (62)

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was first published in 1962. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition. 323pp

The book I reacted least well to …

… was The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman. It had made an impact upon me when I had first read it, and I assumed that it would illuminate some of the ridiculousness of the current Brexit crisis. But the arguments seemed a little circular this time around. Nevertheless, the idea that policy-makers do crazy and foolish things still has traction.

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W Tuchman published in 1984. I read Abacus edition published in 1985. 559pp

The books I was most pleased to read …

… were Testament of Youth  by Vera Brittain and 84 Charing Cross Road  by Helene Hanff. They were both rereads, the first a book that had convinced me of the importance of history as told by women. I liked the second because it reveals the deep friendships created through a shared love of books, and by two charming people.

Testament of Youthby Vera Brittain, first published in 1933. I used the edition published by Fontana in 1979. 661pp

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff, first published by Andre Deutsch in 1971. I read the paperback edition published by sphere. 230pp

A theme that emerged …

… was of the increased influence of women in a widening range of spheres as the 20thcentury rolled out. The first book is about gardening, but in the second decade Mrs Pankhurst’s account of the suffragette campaign indicated change. Some of the most important nonfiction writing of the century came from women, including Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain, Anne Frank, Rachel Carson, Joan Didion.

The Decades Project in 2018:

I enjoyed seeking out and reading nonfiction for 2018. The project maintained the wildcard element in my reading and blog. Next year I plan to follow the same pattern, but to read children’s literature and feature a book once a month. I have already anticipated rereading some of my favourites from my own childhood, but also those from my daughter’s and grandsons’. Watch this space.

Suggestions for this new series are always welcome.

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84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

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

Gentlemen,

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,

Helene Hanff

(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:

March 1950

Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing. You are just sitting AROUND.

September 1950

he has a first edition of Newman’s University for six bucks, do I want it, he asks innocently.

Dear Frank:

Yes I want it.

April 1951

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.

Dear Miss,

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:

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank (1947)

Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen (1950s)

Silent Springby Rachel Carson (1962)

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