Friday, 10 April 2009

84 Charing Cross Road - Helene Hanff

Read: November 2008

84 Charing Cross Road
in one sentence:

A book lovers dream, this charming collection of letters between a New York writer and London bookshop chronicles one of the most enduring long-distance friendships that can be found in literature.

When Helene Hanff sat down at her typewriter on October 5th, 1949 and typed off a purchase order to a small antiquarian bookshop in London, little could she know that she was about to be drawn into an intercontinental friendship that would last decades and chronicle both her life, and the lives of those she corresponded with. But that is what happened. The ensuing friendship between herself – a free-spirited and self educated New York writer with ‘an antiquarian taste in books’ – and Frank Doel – a reserved bookseller in post-war Britain – was to last for more than twenty years, and capture much of their different personalities, as well as the character of their different cities, separated by a wide ocean, and a common language.

Their relationship catches something of the age. It is 1949 and Britain is still recovering from war, with rationing and reconstruction the order of the day, and stoic survival the dominant mood. Frank Doel embodies the Britain of strict social and moral codes, stiff upper lip professionalism, and courteous detachment. Against this Helene is fiery and abrasive, a no-nonsense New Yorker full of witty sarcasm and little respect for personal boundaries. She sees Frank as delightfully representative of a romantic literary past in which John Donne attends Trinity College, Samuel Pepys is chased around the bedroom by his wife brandishing a red hot poker, and books are printed in beautifully bound, gold edged hardbacks.

Theirs is a deep friendship, but not the love story some suggest. For Helene the love affair is with ‘the England of English literature’, which Frank so helpfully lays out for her, while to him she is an taste of excitement from across the Atlantic, brash and fun in a way post war Britain was not.

This totally platonic intercontinental friendship is charming. You read along enraptured, aware of how privileged you are to be granted such intimate insight into two lives, adopting their friendship almost as if it were your own. You smile along with Helene when she is sent into ecstasy by the arrival of a first edition of John Newman’s Idea of a University, and with Frank when a parcel of tinned food (near impossible to get due to rationing) arrives at the bookshop. When she asks him to root for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he responds by asking her to ‘give a few cheers for THE SPURS’. She vents with fury at the destruction of a book used for packaging, and he travels to estate sales to see if he can find any good books in their libraries.

For a books aficionado, this is an absolute joy. There is so much to learn about classic literature, the lives of great writers, and the history of the book trade. Helene Hanff’s self-taught learning is impressive. At one point she describes her early readings, and the way she consumed the annuls of literature one step at a time, from Milton’s Paradise Lost, to Arther Quiller-Couch’s lectures, to The Bible. This is a book absolutely chock full of life and energy and perfect characterisation.

And yet between the lines there is something sad here too. Not only do they never meet, but time passes silently, with so much happening in each of their lives that is never spoken about. Invisibly, they grow older and have adventures and experiences we never hear about, tragic events strike, time passes; life goes on away from our prying eyes. At times months and even years go by without a letter, what happens in these years can only be guessed at. It is difficult not to wish for so much more than the 99 pages of letters this book provides. The more you read, the more you want to read, and all this life lived between the lines on the page is so close and yet so utterly unreachable that you yearn for more.

But this passage of time is reassuring as well, for time does not pass for Helene and Frank. Outside their correspondence the world continues to turn, but nothing affects their frank camaraderie. Like the English literature whose history they are each so steeped in, they remain untouched by the passage of time, and when you finish the last letter, one of the joys is that they remain before you for a long time, like long lost friends who you will never forget. And in this beautiful Virago celebration edition, we also get The Duchess of Bloomsbury, a diary of Helene's wonderful and eventual trip to London in promotion of 84 Charing Cross Road. It offers a beautiful counterpoint to the longing of her correspondence, and a fascinating portrait of the real London, warts and all, even through the eyes of a lifelong anglophile such as Helene. I love 84 Charing Cross Road, it is a wonderfully enchanting book and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

9 out of 10

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