Author: Helene Hanff
Series: She wrote a follow-up book called “The Duchess of Boomsbury Street.”
Randomly interesting thing: Helene Hanff wrote many scripts for “Ellery Queen” on television.
Summary: The book contains Helene’s correspondance with the booksellers of Marks & Co (especially Frank Doel) between 1949 and 1969.
Oh, but it’s so much more than that, isn’t it?! I’m not going to do a sensible review here because I just can’t. Instead, I’m simply going to tell you how much I love this book. My only complaint is that there are letters left out, and I want more! I reread it once a year or so, and I really wish I could own a copy of this book as beautifully-bound as some of the tomes she describes. Instead, I make do with a rubbish-looking Book Club edition from the library– but the words it holds, oh my.
84, Charing Cross Road contains so many of my passions: really beautifully bound books, good literature, well-written letters (a dead art, really), and England. As Helene and Frank become friends, their letters become more about their lives and their families, which gives us a lovely glimpse back in time. I don’t know about you, but 1949 might as well be a different world for me. When Helene first begins writing, looking to buy a few out-of-print books, England is still under severe rationing (can you imagine?), and the dollar to the pound exchange rate must have been something truly spectacular– at one point, she is offered a 100-year-0ld first edition for $6! Frank’s England is also one of tiny, dusty bookshops with tall shelves and twisting ladders where beautiful, classical books wait to be discovered . How gorgeous!
- the Marks & Co shop at 84, Charing Cross Road– sadly, they have long been out of business.
Yes, there is a movie. No, it’s not as good (despite having Judi Dench, Anne Bancroft, and Anthony Hopkins in it); how could it be? The whole point of the book is their letters, which can’t be replicated in film-form. There were also, according to wiki, radio plays. These I have not heard.
Here, for just a taste, is one of my favorite letters from Helene to Frank:
sunday night and a hell of a way to start 1960
i don’t know, frankie–
Somebody gave me this book for Christmas. It’s a Giant Modern Library book. Did you ever see one of those? It’s less attractively bound than the Proceedings of the New York State Assembly and it weighs more. It was given to me by a gent who knows I’m fond of John Donne. The title of this book is:
The Complete Poetry
The Complete Poetry
The question mark is mine. Will you please tell me what those two boys have in common?– except that they were both English and they both Wrote? I tried reading the Introduction figuring that might explain it. The Introduction is in four parts. Parts I and II include a Professor’s life of Donne mit-illustrations-from-the-author’s-works-also-criticism. Part III begins– and God knows I quote–:
When as a little boy, William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a tree amid a summer field, he was soundly trounced by his mother.
I’m with his mother. I mean, the back of the Lord God or the face of the Virgin Mary, all right– but why the hell would anybody want to see the prophet Ezekiel?
I don’t like Blake anyway, he swoons too much, it’s Donne I’m writing about, I’m being driven clear up the wall, Frankie, you have GOT to help me.
Here I was, curled up in my armchair so at peace with the world, with something old and serene on the radio– Corelli or somebody– and this thing on the table. This Giant Modern Library thing. So I thought:
“I will read the three standard passages from Sermon XV aloud,” You have to read Donne aloud, it’s like a Bach fugue.
Would you like to know what I went through in an innocent attempt to read three contiguous uncut passages from Sermon XV aloud?
You start with the Giant Modern Library version, you locate Sermon XV and there they are: Excerpts I, II, and III,– only when you get to the end of Excerpt I you discover they have deleted Jezebel off it. So you get down Donne’s Sermons, Selected Passages (Logan Pearsall Smith) where you spend twenty minutes locating Sermons XV, Excerpt I, because by Logan Pearsall Smith it isn’t Sermon XV, Excerpt I, it’s Passage 126. All Must Die. Now that you’ve found it, you find he also deleted Jezebel so you get down the Complete Poetry & Selected Prose (Nonesuch Press) but they didn’t happen to select Jezebel either, so you get down the Oxford Book of English Prose where you spend another twenty minutes locating it because in the Oxford English Prose it isn’t Sermon XV, Excerpt I nor yet 126. All Must Die, it’s Passage 113. Death the Leveller. Jezebel is there, and you read it aloud but when you get to the end you find it doesn’t have either Excerpt II or III so you have to switch to one of the other three books provided you had the wit to leave all three open at the right pages which I didn’t.
So, break it to me gently: how hard is it going to be to find me John Donne’s Complete Sermons and how much is it going to cost?
i am going to bed. i will have hideous nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labelled Excerpt, Selection, Passage and Abridged,
Do you see why this is a brilliant book and why you need to own it immediately? Go. Go straight to your independent bookstore (or B & N if you must) and buy it now. You may thank me later. After you have read it, come back and tell me your favorite bits.
p.s. and have a box of tissues ready for the end, all right?