84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

I have heard so much praise for ’84 Charing Cross Road’ by Helene Hanff it’s a book that I have been meaning to read for ages. It is also one of those books where because I had heard so much praise for it I hadn’t picked it up because I was worried it wouldn’t have the effect on me that it did on everyone else. We all have books like that don’t we, it’s not just me? Anyway I was lucky enough to receive as a Christmas present from the lovely Paul Magrs who thought it would be a perfect read for me, and he was spot on.

’84 Charing Cross Road’ is a series of very real letters, for some reason until I actually had the book in my hand I thought that it was a work of fiction, between writer Helene Hanff and Frank Doel a bookseller of Messrs Marks & Co a second-hand book shop in the heart of London. What initially starts as very much a business correspondence, between the rather outspoken Hanff and the more reserved Doel, from October 1949 becomes a friendship through letters and a love of books that lasts over twenty years.

“I just happen to have a peculiar taste in books, thanks to a Cambridge professor named Quiller-Couch, known as Q whom I fell over in a library when I was 17. And I’m about as smart-looking as a Broadway pan-handler.”

If that hasn’t already had you running to a book shop to buy it, as it is a most perfect book about books and reading really, there is so much more. As Hanff and Doel’s friendship blossoms she starts to send packages of food to him and the other workers in the store during the war, getting friends to visit with nylons etc, thus she creates further friendships all by the power of the pen. Initially (and I wondered if Frank himself might have felt this) Hanff’s lust for life, over familiarity and demanding directness almost pushed me to annoyance until her humour and her passion for books becomes more and more apparent along with her thoughtfulness during the war years as mentioned. I was soon wishing I had become Hanff’s correspondent myself.

“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.”

There is a bittersweet twist in the tale, and I don’t think it spoils anything to give this away but skip this paragraph if you don’t want any spoilers, is that sadly Frank died before Helene could ever go and finally visit the shop. There are several times that she endeavours to get herself to London but due to finances, teeth and other circumstances it never happens. That all changes after the publication of ’84 Charing Cross Road’ which being a huge success means she flies to London to visit the shop, some of the people and the city she has always dreamed of visiting. She keeps a diary during this trip which is now included in every edition of this novel/la named ‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’ which makes for additional fascinating reading.

“I got out of bed, had hysterics, a martini and two cigarettes, got back into bed, and whiled away the rest of the night composing cables saying I wasn’t coming.”

It’s hard to say anything further about these two novels, or are they technically novellas, because they simply need to be read. I can’t say anything other than go out and get a copy if you haven’t already. It was certainly a book that was right up my street! 9.5/10

This book was bought for me for Christmas by a very kind friend.

Who else has had the pleasure of reading ’84 Charing Cross Road’? Has anyone seen the movie, and if so what did you make of it? Which books about books and book lovers should I look out for next? Has anyone read any of Hanff’s other novels? Which books have been sat on your TBR and have you been putting off as everyone else loved them so much you fear you might not?


Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2011, Helene Hanff, Review, Virago Books

39 responses to “84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

  1. I read and posted on this delightful book a few months ago-I liked it a lot-if you have not read it yet you might consider Alan Bennett’s Uncommon Reader and also the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society-all books about people who love books and reading-I enjoyed your post a lot

    • Oh I loved The Uncommon Reader I thought it was a marvellous little book and one that I plan on revisiting at some point in my reading life… maybe more than once, I could imagine doing the same with this one. Same with Guernsey too actually.

  2. I have read this book numerous times. It brings me much joy and heartfelt tears. One of my favourites. I echo the previous comment, both wonderful novels. Your blog is a delight.

  3. gaskella

    I’ve not read the book, but the film is wonderful and touching (predictably, I cried!)

  4. One of my favourite books ever! The film wasn’t too shabby either, Anthony Hopkins was a perfect Frank, and the shop interior had me wishing I could time-travel

  5. It is such a charming and delightful book, Simon, and I’m glad you loved it too. Sometimes I also fear that I won’t feel the same about a book that is universally-loved, which can be so disappointing.

    I’m a big fan of epistolary novels and recently read and loved Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn; it’s not a book about books but it is about language and a wonderfully fun read that raises a lot of interesting points.

    I think you have read the books about books that spring to mind (The Child that Books Built?) but books that are rich in literary allusion are the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde; I have recommended Fforde to you often and now that you have read Jane Eyre I recommend him again (besides, I think you will adore the Mrs Danvers clones!)

    • Oooh I have never heard of Ella Minnow Pea, I shall have to go and do some research into that one I think.

      The Child That Books Built, that sounds corking and I am indeed going to have to hunt down my copy of The Eyre Affair and give it a whirl. The Mrs Danvers clones are goiung to be my favourite bit I can already tell.

  6. I read this and loved it (review done)

  7. A friend gave me this book as a Christmas present way back in 1998! I remember reading it and then taking a trip down Charing Cross Road looking for number 84! I always think of this book whenever I’m in that part of town. Such fond memories… Glad to hear you enjoyed it, too.

  8. I have this and really want to get to it as I want to watch the film ,this seeems like a real book lovers book ,all the best stu

  9. I LOVED this book, with all my heart. In fact, I was inspired to write my review as a letter to Helene! Told girlfriend she should have spoken up, we would have floated her some cash to go see her friends. I think that message was the strongest for me…don’t just assume you can do something tomorrow. I will forever keep and re-read this book.

  10. So glad you enjoyed this delightful book! It’s one I return to over and over though, like you, it did take a while for the effusive Helene to win me over on my first read.

    • Helene and me didnt initially gel – well for about ten pages – then sure enough I felt like I was with a firm friend or two as the book went on. You can read the genuine passion for books and thats great.

  11. In my humble opinion the film is just as wonderful as the book. I have seen and read this one more times than I can count. I came to the movie first though, so perhaps that shades my thinking on that. But it really is a fun, sweet film.

  12. I read this book just before the play came to the London stage (in the late 1970s if I recall). The book was *so* much better than the play. It seemed awfully two-dimentional compared to the novel. I read it again twenty years later, around the time I found my first online penpal and it felt just as warm and relevant as before.

    • Was there a play? Oh I cant imagine that if I am honest. It made me want to bring back letters and start writing to them all in sundry, in fact I might have to go and pen a letter to someone now.

  13. Sue

    I love the film and the book. There are lots of lovely moments in the film but one where she stops reading a book and just smells it is the most memorable. She wrote a follow up when she finally makes to England which is also good. I also have it on audio book which makes lovely, relaxing listening.

  14. I loved this book – such a treat! Glad to read that you enjoyed it as well. I have yet to see the film, but it is on my To Be Seen list. Definitely a book for book lovers.

  15. I really loved the real Helene, but brassy Ann Bancroft in the movie drove me nuts…and I’m American! I agree with the above comment where it felt a bit two-dimentional, where the letters, or any letters are so much more.

    Side note: I’ve had ‘Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ for eons and haven’t read it, for fear of everyone’s praise. I started it yesterday and have barely moved it’s so good!

    • Ooooh interesting that you didnt love Ann Bancroft so much… I will have to be more wary of the film now I think.

      Oooh I want to try The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, sounds like its brilliant if its got you unable to move. Wonderful recommendation.

  16. Wow. I, too, had always thought this was fiction, and I, too, had always meant to read it.

    Thanks for giving me the nudge I needed to get myself a copy and check it out!

  17. Was there a play?”

    Yes, first on Broadway before coming to the West End stage. Scroll down to ‘Adaptations’ on the link below.


  18. I love the movie and the books so much. I shared them with my own mother, who has the same great sense of attachment to them now. Interestingly, I’ve been thinking a lot today (after reading Waugh’s Loved One) about the connections in literature between the very English and the very American–and in many ways this book addresses exactly that theme.

  19. I love the book and the film (which features a cameo from a youngish Judi Dench!) – although The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street left me cold.

  20. Pingback: Savidge Reads Books of 2011 – Part I | Savidge Reads

  21. Pingback: The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters Between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952-73 edited by John Saumarez Smith | Savidge Reads

  22. Pingback: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff | Iris on Books

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