Helene Hanff – 84 Charing Cross Road

Posted on | March 31, 2011 | 11 Comments

84 Charing Cross RoadIf there ever was a perfect book, this would be it. Yes, I know that’s an extremely strong and subjective statement, but I don’t think many people who have read this will disagree. It’s feel-good, happy, and just… perfect.

84 Charing Cross Road revolves around two people living halfway across the world from one another, with their warmth, kindness, generosity, and love of books bringing them together. The book is a series of real letters exchanged between the two of them over a period of twenty years, starting in October 1949.

Helene Hanff, in New York, is a book-lover but she struggled to find good copies of the books she was interested in near her, so she wrote to a small second-hand bookstore in London, Messrs Marks and Co., which was located at 84 Charing Cross Road, requesting them to send her clean second-hand copies of books she was interested in. Frank Doel was her main correspondent at the bookstore, who replied, and through the letters, a beautiful friendship began.

What was amazing was how, through the letters, one can actually see the friendship evolve. The first few letters were “stiffer” and more formal, with Frank addressing Helene as “Madam” (to which she replies, “I hope ‘madam’ doesn’t mean over there what it does here.“) and then moving on to Miss Hanff (to which she replies saying, “Miss Hanff to you (I’m Helene only to my friends“)). Finally, they are on first name terms, as Frank isn’t quite as stand-offish as he comes across initially.

Honestly, in an age that pre-dates online shopping by a few decades, the fact that Helene was buying her books across the pond seemed incredibly quirky. She had her reasons, which unsurprisingly I do agree with – the way books were made in New York didn’t compare to the way they were made in London, and her philosophy was to not cram her shelves with contemporary books, but only purchase books that she’d read and loved – and she wanted the beautifully made ones from London sitting on her shelves.

I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put in on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.

The enthusiasm and passion that Helene had for her classics and books was incredibly endearing, as was her direct forthcoming manner which put Frank at ease.

“You’ll be fascinated to learn (from me that hates novels) that I finally got round to Jane Austen and went out of my mind for Pride and Prejudice which I can’t bring myself to take back to the library till you find me a copy of my own.”

However, what made her a truly remarkable character was her actions when she discovered everything in Britain was being rationed post-war. She promptly started sending the employees at 84 Charing Cross Road meat and eggs, and she even sent them nylons! Christmas presents were exchanged, and the friendship struck between the two people who had never met just came across as so real and wonderfully touching. In London, the rest of the staff started corresponding with Helene as well, as did Frank’s wife, and again, the affection and kindness between these strangers who’d come together largely due to their love for literature was evident. Almost fairy-tale like. Too good to be true.

In fact, Helene was even invited by her friends in London to visit them, and stay with them. Her friends visited the bookstore in London, and once Frank et al discovered that they were her friends, they were treated like royalty.

…We walked into your bookstore and said we were friends of yours and were nearly mobbed. Your Frank wanted to take us home for the weekend. Mr. Marks came from the back of the store just to shake hands with friends-of-Miss-Hanff, everybody in the place wanted to wine and dine us….

It does make me wonder though – nowadays, the world is so much smaller, communicating across the pond so much easier, but how often are any of us going to be lucky enough to strike a friendship as pure and uncomplicated as that? No selfishness, no end-game, just affection and kind-heartedness. Remember: this book is non-fiction.

I loved all the characters in this book, and I think I’d feel lucky if I had the opportunity to befriend even one of them, for in a world as tainted as the one we are in today, such unselfish kind people are like hidden precious gems. I loved the sense of humour, the excitement and the literary passion.

I am going to bed. I will have nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labeled Excerpt, Selection, Passage, and Abridged.

Have you read this book? Is it the “nicest” book you’ve ever read? Or is it just me?

If you haven’t, I really hope you’re convinced that it’s a must-read now. It really really is – I was slightly apprehensive when I began reading it, for I’d heard a fair few other bloggers gush about this book, but it really is all that.


11 Responses to “Helene Hanff – 84 Charing Cross Road”

  1. JoAnn
    March 31st, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

    Oh yes, this is one of my all-time favorites. Your review makes me want to read it again… right now!

  2. Darlene
    April 1st, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

    Thinking I should find out what all the fuss was about I finally read this one, umm…I’m thinking last year, and absolutely adored it! Definitely one of those books you hug to your chest when you finish. Of course the movie was promptly borrowed from the library and is just as delightful.

  3. Margaret Powling
    April 2nd, 2011 @ 11:56 pm

    Yes, this IS a perfect book. I always felt I wanted to write to Helene,to thank her for such a delightful book which is a marvellous reading list as well, but never did and then, sadly, she died and the opportunity was lost forever. If you’ve not seen the film, then do so (it’s on DVD) … it is a marvellous evocation of this book, and Anne Bancroft as Helene is excellent, as is Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel.
    Margaret P

  4. anothercookiecrumbles
    April 3rd, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    @JoAnn : lol, do :) I’d love to re-read it again – maybe in a year or so, just because it’s so wonderfully feel good.

    @Darlene : I haven’t seen the movie yet. Always a little apprehensive about movies based on books, lest it do the book no justice whatsoever. When I started reading this book, I was almost convinced that I’d be underwhelmed by it, considering the expectations based on the blogging universe. Funnily enough, I was overwhelmed by how wonderful it was.

    @Margaret : Thanks, after both, your comment and Darlene’s, I might just have to watch the movie! The thought did cross my mind as well – writing a thank you note to Helene, and I think she’d be an excellent correspondent.

  5. Margaret Powling
    April 3rd, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    So glad you have now seen the movie of 84 Charing Cross Road – I watch it about once a year and although I know the ending, I always weep. But what a joy the book and the film are! It is truly one of my favourite films of all time; for once, the film is as good as the book, but we must all remember that there had to be a good book first from which to make a movie.

  6. charley
    April 4th, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    This sounds lovely, and after reading a couple of true crime books, I think a nice book is in order!

  7. anothercookiecrumbles
    April 9th, 2011 @ 9:14 am

    @Margaret Powling: …and, a great person (well, two people) for the book to be made!

    @charley: Yep, I think so! :) Hope you enjoy it.

  8. 18 miles and… nothing?! : another cookie crumbles
    April 18th, 2011 @ 1:14 am

    […] only to be slightly turned off by the quality of the books. I now understand what Hanff meant in 84 Charing Cross Road, when she said that the books in New York felt cheap and not as beautiful as the books across the […]

  9. Lidia
    June 9th, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    I have only just discovered this website so apologies for barging in with my late comment!
    I only wanted to tell everyone of another book that given a wonderful picture of the lost world of antiquarian bookshop Marks & Co. The book is called Between Silk and Cyanide and was written by Leo Marks whose father owned the shop. Truly riveting book about Special Operations Executive (SOE) but for the admirers of Helene Hanff’s book his book brings to life the shop and staff who worked there. I only wish I could go back in time and spend a day browsing through the books at Marks&Co. Bliss!

  10. Peggy Taylor
    June 18th, 2011 @ 12:29 am

    New reader to your blog, but I had to add a comment to this posting. It’s such a pleasure to find someone who also enjoyed this book. After I saw the movie I searched for the book and was charmed all over again.
    Have you read the other books Helen Hanff has written? She wrote a sequel to 84 Charing Cross Rd about her trip to England. Not half as charming, but interesting – revealed some insight to her relationships with the people around her.-Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. She also wrote book of NYC sights. Dated now, but clearing she loved the city and her personality come thru loudly.

  11. Lesley
    June 21st, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

    Am re-reading for the umpteenth time Helene Hanff’s books. I have an omnibus edition so once Ive started I just go onto the end. I love them because they’re funny and very upbeat and Helene is so modest about her own success. Who could fail to love her, particularly when she comes to England and is so passionate about it. Definitely one of my comfort authors. I picked her up this time because I have a cold, it’s been raining and I am supposed to be reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Might be a classic but not my cup of tea I’m afraid.

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