Helene Hanff and “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street”
January 9, 2014 2 Comments
I had a big stack of books all set to read once I reached this point of my treatment / recovery: textbooks, novels, history, Latin, et bleeding cetera.
Yes, let’s have a good big laugh at my planning.
I am not much in the mood for new books. The idea of cracking “De bello gallico,” or Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, or the pre-calc book my student assistant very thoughtfully provided for me, makes me utterly apathetic. I managed to read a science-fiction novel, and the first half of “Little Dorrit,” and I am afraid that’s about it.
But rereading – !
I was fumbling around the shelves the other week and my hand fell upon Helene Hanff’s “84, Charing Cross Road.” I devoured it, for the thirty-fifth time. It’s a charming little epistolary (!) novel in which Helene enters into correspondence with a little London bookstore back in the early 1950s. Her style is chatty and wise-guyish, and the bookseller’s letters are starchy and informational. They get to know one another. She gets to know everyone in the bookstore. She sends gifts of food (rationing was a grim fact of life in England in those days), and talks about Isaak Walton and John Donne as if she knows them personally, and the bookstore staff send her snapshots and tablecloths and – upon occasion – the books she orders.
If you haven’t read it – well, it’s a gem.
In the sequel, “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street,” Helene finally goes to London (in 1971) and stays for about six weeks, and keeps a detailed travel diary. This book was never so much a favorite of mine as “84 Charing Cross”; it seemed perfunctory, tacked-on.
Now I have read it twice more, and I have changed my mind.
This book is a minor masterpiece of travel literature. It works under one simple premise: if you dream of visiting a place for long enough, the place you dream of will be there waiting for you when you finally get there. There will be all kinds of U-turns and surprises, but at the end of the day, you will have discovered your dream.
Helene’s descriptions of London are peachy. Her observations are wry. She is unexpectedly wise. (She notes, for example, that you could take any block of a London suburb and plop it down into Queens or Brooklyn, and no one would be the wiser. You could never, however, get away with substituting a block of downtown London with a block of downtown New York.) Her descriptions of her traveling companions are poifect. She is irascible and sometimes unhappy and disappointed. It’s one of the truest travel books I’ve ever read.
Put this on your reading list, kids.