84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

Last week I went to see the play based on Helene Hanff’s best known work 84 Charing Cross Road at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton. There is a touring production currently travelling the UK with Stephanie Powers playing Helene and Clive Francis as Frank Doel. I first read the book in the early 80’s and have happy memories of that and seeing the film with Anne Bancroft and  Anthony Hopkins made in 1987 so it was a joy to see the play and how well it was done. I think that from now on that when reading the book I will always hear the letters as read by Stephanie Powers she gave a wonderful performance. Clive Francis was very good as Frank, but it’s very difficult to beat Anthony Hopkins, so I now have a weird mix of play and film in my head. You can see a clip from the film on youtube here.

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However this is a review of the book, it was first published by Grossman in the US in 1970 then by Andre Deutsch in the UK in 1971, the copy I currently have was printed by Time Warner Books in 2006. It has to be at least the third copy of this book I have owned as previous copies have disappeared over the years, as I either gave them away to people who I thought would love the book or just never got back a loaned volume. Like most editions nowadays in this copy the original book is paired with Hanff’s follow up work The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which describes her journey to London for the UK launch of the original book. The first book itself simply consists of the letters between Hanff, who is in New York and Marx & Co. antiquarian booksellers based at number 84 Charing Cross Road. Initially they are quite business like, Hanff has seen an advert in the Saturday Review of Literature so on 5th October 1949 she first makes contact with the firm and pens a short note with a list of books she wants to see if they can supply them. but by the time of the last letter from the firm to Helene it is almost 20 years later on 8th January 1969.

There is no exposition, it is just the letters so all you know about Frank, Helene and the others who write occasional missives is what they include in the correspondence; but from this you really get involved in this developing two decade long friendship. By the end you feel you know them and the final few letters mean as much to you as they must have meant to Helene when they prompted her to compile the book, as she writes in Q’s Legacy.

“I have to write it.”

Then I went cold inside, I could only write it if I still had Frank’s letters. I’d begun saving them 20 years later because a tax accountant wanted a record of what I spent on books… The thin blue airmail letters with a rubber band round them took up no space, lying nearly flat under manuscripts in a back corner of one of six small cabinet drawers under my bookshelves. But year after year when I cleaned out the cabinets, I’d come on them and wonder why I was saving them. Sitting there that evening, I vividly remembered that when I had reorganised the cabinets a few weeks earlier I’d stood by the waste basket hefting the letters, debating whether to keep them or throw them out. I couldn’t remember which I’d done. And I was afraid to find out.

Fortunately she hadn’t thrown them out although they were only found after an agonising search

I carried the letters to the table and opened them – and snapshots of young families spilled out of them. Some were from Nora Doel, some were from one of the girls who worked in the shop, all of them were 10 or 15 years in the past … I found snapshots of Frank standing proudly beside his new secondhand car. I was laughing by this time, I poured another cup of coffee and settled down to read the letters.

By the time I went to bed I was positively happy, I was going to relive the lovely episode Marks & Co. had been in my life by making a short story of the correspondence.

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The letters get less formal as the years go on, by February 1952 Frank is writing to ‘Dear Helene’ as opposed to ‘Dear Miss Hanff’ which is how he starts off and whilst initially Frank’s letters are solely about the books or in response to gifts of food Helene sends to ration struck England, Helene’s become quite chatty very early on and she jokingly tells him off several times (these are just extracts from letters not full examples)

November 2, 1951

Dear Speed ___

You dizzy me, rushing Leigh Hunt and the Vulgate over here whizbang like that. You probably don’t realise it, but it’s hardly more than two years since I ordered them. You keep going at this rate you’re gonna give yourself a heart attack.

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Clearly remembering this letter many years later Frank was able to eventually get in a small riposte.

3rd May 1957

Dear Helene,

Prepare yourself for a shock. ALL THREE of the books you requested in your last letter are on their way to you and should arrive in a week or so. Don’t ask how we managed it – It’s just a part of the Marks service.

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Other members of staff at Marks & Co. also write to Helene, along with Dora (Frank’s wife) who initially just thanks her for the food she has sent but then also enters into a longer correspondence. What I really liked about the play was that the script really was just reading the letters to one another, the stage was split into Helene’s New York apartment on the left with the bookshop taking up roughly two thirds of the stage to the right. Almost all the letters in the book were read verbatim, in the film the letters are still the main part of the text but it is expanded to make it more cinematic and as you can see from the clip I included a link to above we even see other locations than the bookshop and the apartment.

It’s very difficult to review this book without spoiling it for new readers but it is truly a delight to read and if you haven’t read it then please do so, then see the film and if possible catch it in the theatre. The images from the play are lifted from the Cambridge Arts Theatre website whose production this was.

The second book included in the paperback is The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and this is more of a diary tracking Helene’s trip to the UK, all the people she meets and the various publicity events she goes to including a special opening up of the by now closed Marks & Co. shop on Charing Cross Road, so she did finally get to visit ‘her bookshop’ even if it was too late. The main signing event took place in Poole’s bookshop, next door in number 86. This diary runs from 17th June to 26th July 1971 and is considerably longer that the book it celebrates. Sadly the shop is now a McDonald’s burger place but there is a plaque outside commemorating the old bookshop and Hanff’s apartment on  305 E. 72nd Street has been named “Charing Cross House”.

For the really keen there is the third book in ‘the series’ which I quoted from above, Q’s legacy explains how, when it became clear she was not going to be able to afford any more than a year at college, she was in a library and she first came across Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. She felt his books of essays and lectures taught her more than the first year had done and she was hooked. Q, as he was invariably known, introduced her to Walton, Newman, Milton and numerous others and she wanted to read more than just the extracts he quoted so was looking for a good bookshop when she saw that advert in the Saturday Review. If anyone is responsible for all that followed after that it is the now largely forgotten Q. Forgotten that is except by those of us who own a copy of his massive 1100 page work The Oxford Book of English Verse which for decades was the definitive collection, first published in 1900 and revised in 1939 to expand the selection up to 1918.