Helene Hanff’s collection of letters to her book dealer in London, 84, Charing Cross Road, kept coming up in the various book recommendation lists that algorithms have created for me over the years. I finally gave in and bought a copy of this brief book because, honestly, it sounded delightful. I was not disappointed.
Hanff was a mid-century screen writer who lived in a tiny apartment in New York. Her first letters to Frank Doel at Marks & Co., in London reveal her frustration with bookstores in New York: too expensive, too beat up, or absent altogether. The letters in this collection span twenty years as Hanff and Doel develop a pen-friendship. Hanff also becomes a friendly American Santa Claus to the staff of Marks & Co. in the early 1950s because she keeps sending them food and supplies as rationing in Britain didn’t stop until 1951 or so.
The best aspect of 84, Charing Cross Road is Hanff’s caustic wit. She’s an impatient reader and holds no cow sacred. She “yells” at Frank when he can’t find an obscure book quickly enough and regularly demolishes editors who, for example, cut out her favorite entries in Pepys’ diary. I find Hanff hilarious when she writes things like:
Savage Landor [referring to a collection of dialogs and essays by Walter Savage Landor] arrived safely and promptly fell open to a Roman dialogue where two cities had just been destroyed by war and everybody was being crucified and begging passing Roman soldiers to run them through and end the agony. It’ll be a relief to turn to Aesop and Rhodope where all you have to worry about is a famine. (Hanff to Doel, December 8, 1949*)
I just happen to have peculiar taste in books, thanks to a Cambridge professor named Quiller-Couch, known as Q, whom I fell over in a library when I was 17. (Hanff to Cecily Farr**, April 10, 1950)
They told [one of Hanff’s friends] to write an essay in Early Anglo-Saxon on any-subject-of-her-own-choosing. “Which is all very well,” she said bitterly, “but the only essay subject you can find enough Early Anglo-Saxon words for is ‘How to Slaughter a Thousand Men in a Mead Hall.'” (Hanff to Doel, August 15, 1959)
I smirked and snorted my way through the whole collection.
Though the letters are short and this collection does not include all of Hanff and Doel’s correspondence, there is enough to see the good-hearted Doel and the acerbic Hanff bond over their shared love of secondhand books. I would recommend 84, Charing Cross Road to fellow book lovers who would like to kill an hour or two with a pair of kindred bibliophiles.
* Quotes are from the 1990 Penguin Books paperback.
** Another employee of Marks & Co.