transatlantic love affairs with books


I was reminded of 84, Charing Cross Road after being gravely disappointed in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and was delighted to find out there was a sequel to the former, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

The books themselves are very easy to describe: 84, Charing Cross Road is the collected letters sent back and forth between Helene Hanff and her contact at a London bookstore (no longer extant), Frank Doel between 1949 and 1968, and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is Hanff’s journal of her trip to London to publicize the collection of letters.

84, Charing Cross Road has always struck me as a love story between two people who not only never met but wouldn’t have done anything remotely intimately scandalous if they had; Frank Doel was happily married at the time, and indeed his widow happily escorted Hanff around London when she finally did make it across the Atlantic to visit London. A touch I found interesting was that, as the earlier correspondence took place while the U.K. was still under quite strict rationing, Hanff took the trouble to send over hampers of food to a group with whom she had only a business relationship. As a result of the hampers and her writing style, the relationship, though always proper, grew to something approximating friendship. I don’t know if they included all of the correspondence–letters may have been lost in moving or simply didn’t advance the “plot”–or if Hanff’s purchasing simply tailed off in the late 1960s; the letters are regular in the early 1950s but become sparser as the book continues. I may be a bit biased as I love books and appreciate Hanff’s dedication/determination to expand her horizons through reading; she’d rather spend money on books than luxury consumables.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street begins as Hanff readies for her long dreamed of trip to London in the early 1970’s; she’s been dreaming of this since before Elizabeth’s coronation, but always something prevented it–dental work, loss of job, having to move, whatever. As with many sequels, even non-fiction ones, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street doesn’t quite live up to the promise of 84, Charing Cross Road; I suppose imagination is always better than reality, though her trip to London does sound to be (almost) everything she’d hoped, with a few disappointments, such as trying to explain to the hotel bartender exactly how she wanted a martini to be made. (He never did bring himself to put in that third jigger of gin, poor man.)

As for what to read next, I would most heartily NOT recommend The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. There are far too many good epistolary works out there to waste one’s time on mere romantic gentle read goo, unless that’s ALL one reads. In that case, go for it. (In fairness, there are plenty of people who do just this! Just not me.)

For reference: a fan site for the bookstore

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