Modern Masters

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff – 8/10

“I have implicit faith in the U.S. Airmail and His Majesty’s Postal Service”

Miss Helene Hanff, struggling writer, sends a missive to a second-hand bookshop in London asking for clean second-hand copies of a few books for under $5.00, and from this simple request, a Transatlantic friendship of almost 20 years is born. Letters fly back and forth, Hanff haranguing the staff for not finding her a particular copy of the New Testament, Mr Frank Doel responding in cordial British every time with some new offering. Hanff’s desire to see “the England of English literature” and the bookshop staff’s gratitude for her post-war gifts are palpable.

This is a slim volume – even in a double edition with its sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury St, it barely runs to 200 pages. Nevertheless, the characters are beautiful – innocent, good-hearted, and all the better for being real, including sweet Cecily, who timidly includes a note:

“Dear Miss Hanff, Please don’t let Frank know I’m writing this but every time I send you a bill I’ve been dying to slip in a little note and he might not think it quite proper of me… We all love your letters and try to imagine what you must be like. I’ve decided you’re young and very sophisticated and smart-looking…”

and teaches Helene how to make Yorkshire pudding, by correspondence.

Hanff’s letters are full of sweet comedy (capitalisation or lack thereof is as printed – all the better for imagining her pecking away at her typewriter):

“Will you please translate your prices hereafter? I don’t add too well in plain American, I haven’t a prayer of ever mastering bilingual arithmetic.”

“Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND… you leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in library books that don’t belong to me, some day they’ll find out i did it and take my library card away. I have made arrangements with the Easter bunny to bring you an Egg, he will get over there and find you have died of Inertia.”

(I love the capitalisation as emphasis rendered by a typewriter.)

“WELL!!! All I have to say to YOU, Frank Doel, is we live in depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop – a BOOKSHOP – starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper. I said to John Henry when he stepped out of it… You tore that book up in the middle of a major battle and I don’t even know which war it was.”

“YOU’VE BEEN PUBLISHING THESE MAMMOTH CATALOGUES ALL THESE YEARS AND THIS IS THE FIRST TIME YOU EVER BOTHERED TO SEND ME ONE? THOU VARLET? Don’t remember which restoration playwright called everybody a Varlet, i always wanted to use it in a sentence.”

Not a long or taxing read, but a beautiful one. I can’t wait to see the movie, which is supposed to be excellent.

The cover art is so beautiful and so appropriate, a simple idea but a wonderful one. This is definitely one of my favourite covers.

Additional info:
I bought this at Gould’s Books in Newtown, Australia
Publisher: Futura, 216 pages (paperback in double edition with The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street)
Order this from Amazon* 
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link; proceeds go towards giveaways.

10 thoughts on “84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff – 8/10”

  1. Reminds me somewhat of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Ann Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, which I didn’t like but this one sounds better. I will have to think about getting this one.

    1. It is quite similar to The Guernsey Lit and PPP Soc, I would say the writing is more natural in this because it is a collection of real life correspondence, not a novel written in epistolary style. It’s very short anyway so you won’t waste much time if you don’t like it!

  2. This is the book to which I return whenever I am ill and in need of comfort from an old friend. I cold probably recite it word for word, but who cares, it is perfect. And, for once, the film isn’t bad either.

  3. Yay! I really enjoyed 84 Charing Cross Road and found it hard to believe they were real letters – it seemed to work so well as a novel. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in picking out the way that her capitals and the shop staff’s formal tone give such a strong sense of personality.

    How is Australia? I love the photo on your blog – I’ve got you on googlereader so only just seen it. When you’re away, do you read books set in that country or by local authors? I often intend to go to Daunts before going on holiday but rarely get round to it…

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