The simplicity of reality

84 Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff

I hadn’t heard of this book until The Girl mentioned it on her old blog, but it turns out to be a bit of a modern classic. It’s quite simply the publication of actual letters exchanged between New York writer Helene Hanff and London bookshop Marks & Co. The correspondence lasted 20 years, from 1949 until the bookshop closed.

It’s a beautiful correspondence. On both sides there’s a great love of books (of course), open and engaging friendliness and plenty of humour. Hanff is wry, witty and deeply sarcastic. She’s also generous to a fault, sending food parcels to her London friends while they are still knee-deep in post-war rationing, despite her own meagre and unpredictable income as a TV writer (the exchange rate helped affordability considerably).

Hanff’s main correspondent is the bookshop’s chief buyer, Frank Doel, whose sudden death in 1968 prompted the idea behind the book (which, fittingly, is dedicated to him). It seems an unusual thing to do, in my eyes, and I don’t think Hanff expected the vast readership that the book eventually achieved.

The letters begin when Hanff, unable to find good quality hardback editions of her favourite books in New York, responds to an advert placed by Marks & Co. With characteristic contrariness she always pays by cash, in dollars, using an English neighbour to perform currency conversions. Over the years she amasses quite a collection, from Greek and Roman texts to English diarists to Jane Austen (one of her few sojourns into fiction).

As a booklover one of the great attractions of this volume is the taste and knowledgeableness regarding the books discussed. Hanff is quick to spot a poor translation or an incomplete “abridged” work but she also raves unreservedly about the beauty of certain books – the material, the binding, the gilding, the illustrations. Her enthusiasm is a real delight and it’s easy to see why so many of the bookshop’s employees (and their relatives) muscled in on the letter-writing.

One thing I found a little jolting was that the edition that I read also included Hanff’s next book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street as a sort of epilogue. This is Hanff’s diaries from her 1971 visit to London, when she finally got to see the bookshop (by then closed down and empty – in fact, Hanff takes the letters that had made up the shop sign home as a memento) and meet many of her correspondents and fans of the book. It’s certainly interesting and fills in some of the blanks that the letters don’t cover, but the delicate beauty of 84 Charing Cross Road just isn’t present and the magic of the first half of the volume is quickly lost.

The title stems from Hanff’s perception that she is being treated like a duchess, a status that she does not feel that she deserves. 84 Charing Cross Road was a slow-burner and did not top any bestseller charts; Hanff was only able to afford the trip thanks to advance money from Andre Deutsch for the UK publication and paid interviews conducted during the visit (that said, all her shopping appears to be conducted at Harrods and Selfridge’s, so she’s not that skint). The later stage, TV and film adaptations will no doubt have relieved Hanff’s situation somewhat.

My thanks again to The Girl for alerting me to the existence of this book. It absolutely deserves its status as a cult classic for bookworms.

First published 1971.

84 Charing Cross Road

Incidentally, for anyone who falls in love with this book and wants to go on a pilgrimage to the site of Marks & Co, be warned that its disappointingly non-bookish current tenant is Pizza Hut. But it’s still a beautiful building. Click on the photo above for a bigger view. Thanks to Liz of Eliza Does Very Little for posting about this so that I was forewarned.

5 thoughts on “The simplicity of reality

  1. Mari (Bookworm with a View) August 22, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    oh… you should watch the movie on the snowy/rainy day. It’s a great black and white. I saw it for the first time a few years ago with my parents (this may have helped the viewing experience). They were giddy with anticipation, and yes… they have watched the movie many times.

  2. Nose in a book August 22, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Mari I’ve been meaning to check it out so I’m glad it comes recommended!

  3. Eliza August 25, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    Oh, I adore this book! Think I agree with you about the Duchess though. At the time I was so distressed that the original had finished unexpectedly (given that the book had so many pages left) that it at least prolonged the length of time I was in Helene’s world, but it’s nowhere near as beautiful as the correspondence she has with Frank.

    I just hope that the film lives up to what my imagination created when I read it!

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