While we were in London Deirdre was saying what a wonderful book (and film) 84 Charing Cross Road is, and how sad it is that a Pizza Hut is on the site of that venerable old bookstore. Then when we were back in Galway she surprised me with a copy of the book, which my mother seized and devoured as soon as I got home. It took me a couple months to get around to it, but wow—what a great book it is!
Thank you again for the beautiful book, I shall try very hard not to get gin and ashes all over it, it's really much too fine for the likes of me.
A vivacious New York writer, Helene Hanff, sends a letter in 1949 to a secondhand bookshop in London asking for help locating a few obscure titles, initiating a correspondence that lasts almost twenty years. The book is by turns hilarious and poignant; Helene is quick with the zingers (I don't want to give too many away here), but when she hears that meat and eggs are still severely rationed in post-war England, she orders a food basket to be delivered to the staff at Marks & Co. for the holidays. Her primary pen-pal, Frank Doel, is all stereotypical British reserve at first, but it's clear just how much he comes to treasure her friendship. Your heart aches every time he asks when Helene will finally make that long-awaited trip to London.
From where I sit, London's a lot closer than 17th Street.
My edition contains both 84 and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, the diary Helene kept during her sojourn in London in the summer of 1971. (Ordinarily I refer to authors by their surnames, but Helene is too much a kindred spirit for that. Reading this book is like making a new friend.) I got a heady feeling when she visited The George, that great old pub I told you about back in January, because I was there with Deirdre. What can I say, I get a kick out of little connections like that.
Another connection that really floored me: while Helene is in London, Leo Marks introduces himself as the bookshop owner's son, invites her out to dinner, and his wife later paints her portrait in Russell Square. LEO MARKS! Codemaster for the Special Operations Executive! How awesome is that? (See page 299 of Petty Magic; or just click here).
'Tell me,' said Leo. 'You've written a beautiful book. Why haven't we heard of you before? What was wrong with your earlier work? Too good or not good enough?'Part of the reason why 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (and all her other books, too, no doubt) have resonated with so many readers is this marvelous feeling of kinship across time and space. Helene felt it for Donne and Pepys and John Henry Newman, and we feel it for her.
'Not good enough,' I said. And he nodded and went on to something else, and I think that's when we became soul mates.