’84 Charing Cross Road’ and ‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury’ by Helene Hanff *****

I first read 84 Charing Cross Road and its sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury, some years ago.  In 2015, I had the opportunity to watch the darling, witty film adaptation, and a reread has been on the cards ever since.  During September, I decided to pick it up once more.

97807515038451The beautifully presented Sphere edition which I own contains both of the aforementioned, and from the very beginning, the entirety was so very comforting.  My initial feeling on dipping back into its pages was one of sheer delight, which soon mutated into something akin to the lovely, comfortable wearing of my favourite oversized Thrice hoodie, circa 2009.  Like a warm hug.  Like a remnant of times gone by.

One cannot fail to be charmed by these volumes.  They are lovely, if brief.  84 Charing Cross Road, as most are probably aware of by now, is a volume of correspondence written between New York resident Helene Hanff and Marks & Co., antiquarian booksellers (now, alas, closed) on Charing Cross Road, London.  Helene’s main correspondent at Marks & Co. was Frank Doel, chief buyer, but we are also treated to the letters of those who wrote to Helene only once or twice – other office staff, for instance, after receiving her Christmas parcels.  Such friendships struck up here are lovely to get a glimpse into, particularly as they progress from one year to the next.  The letters span a twenty year period, which is incredible in itself if one thinks about it.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury is written in diary format, and closely follows the daily write-up of what Hanff did whilst in London on a book tour to celebrate the success (and British publication) of 84 Charing Cross Road.  Sadly, when Hanff arrived in the city which she had dreamed of for so long, Frank Doel had passed away, and the bookshop was just an empty shell, the only remnant of the successful shop the letters which spelt out ‘Marks & Co.’ on the outside of the building.

Culturally, the sequel is fascinating.  London is a city I know very well indeed, and it was amazing to me to read about the ways in which it has changed in just a few decades.  Of course, some of it is absolutely the same, and the majority is easily recognisable, but the atmosphere has completely changed by the sound of Hanff’s recollections.  People were polite then.  They held doors open and everything.  Hanff, and the way in which she recounts every little detail, is charming and amusing.  The Duchess of Bloomsbury is a lovely piece of travel literature, and a wonderful sequel.

It must be said (and probably goes without saying, if you are at all familiar with her character) that I adore how sassy Hanff is, and how wonderfully creative her responses are.  She has a British sense of humour, when it boils down to it; she often speaks of fellow Americans who have no idea what she is speaking about.  The importance of small kindnesses is demonstrated throughout, and both books are absolutely lovely.

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