Tag Archives: Helene Hanff

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters Between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952-73 edited by John Saumarez Smith

There is nothing worse than a book funk, those dreaded times where no matter what you might have on your bookshelves/at the library/in the local charity shop nothing, but nothing, seems to tempt you. Thank goodness then for friends’ bookshelves, as spotting ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’ the other day I begged and pleaded to borrow a copy, now they might be begging and pleading for it back. I mean seriously, how could a book combining Nancy Mitford, books and bookshops go wrong?

Francis Lincoln Publishers, paperback, 2005, non fiction, 192 pages, kindly lent by a friend

I have to say initially ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’ made me feel like a bit of a Mitford ignoramus. How did I have no idea that Nancy Mitford had owned part of a bookshop when I am such a fan? I had a good think about it and a vague memory came to me from ‘Letters Between Six Sisters’ that she does actually mention working in one. 10 Curzon Street was that bookshop and though she owned it in some part for some time and it became known as ‘Nancy Mitford’s Bookshop’ the owner was actually Heywood Hill (which sounds like a place but is in fact a man). This book is a collection of edited snippets of their correspondence through two decades, an utter joy for a Mitford fan like me.

Being a writer, a lover of literature and having worked in a bookshop Nancy Mitford makes an interesting correspondent to start with. Throw in her wit and the fact that she mingled in some of the most interesting society in London and Paris as a Mitford sister and you have insight into so many worlds, written in such a way that you cannot help be fascinated whilst smiling wryly. Who else read and yet knew Evelyn Waugh, and many other authors of the times, so well? Apparently Heywood Hill as it goes, close friend of Nancy and the likes of Ivy Compton Burnett, and so the sparing of these two literary lovers, who also happen to be at the heart of the literary world at the time, is any book lovers dream.

‘It’s like with Mr Maugham who calls me Nancy and I always feel I can’t get out Willie… Oh for an amusing novel – no not Henry Green, not yet at least. How I wish I could get on with Miss Compton Burnett but it’s my blind spot. So I plod on with St. Simon, such a nice readable edition, Racine, which, on account of the notes, is as good as Punch.’

My one slight issue with the book is that whilst it is called ‘letters between’ it’s actually very much ‘edits of letters between – with notes’. None of the full letters actually appear in the book, it’s very much just tasters of the best bits. The positive of this of course is that we get the highlights, yet unlike having read so many of her full letters Nancy Mitford could describe walking to the shop or some other every day event in an immensely readable and funny way, it seemed a shame these day to day comments were cut. It also annoyed me and yet intrigued me to read John Saumarez Smith’s notes and the regular mention of a collection of Mitford’s letters called ‘Love from Nancy’ when he didn’t include them, I wanted to read them there and then but alas don’t own them, which of course needs to be rectified. I liked the highlights as I said, yet I wanted more and not just simply the snippets we get. You read a bit and want the rest.

‘…I would like a book plate, simply Nancy Mitford like the Baskerville Bible title pages, lots of squiggles. Could you ponder…?’
‘…Oh isn’t it lovely [the bookplate]… Can we start with 500 or do I have to stoke up for life? Goodness what a sticking and licking there’ll be – yes please, gum…’

That aside I think John Saumarez Smith does a good job with editing this collection of letters. He explains the background behind Nancy and Heywood’s interesting relationship as business partners (‘do let’s divorce’ Nancy wrote at one time) and thanks to a great introduction, best read after you have finished the book as always I think, plus footnotes and commentary between some of the letters to explain what was going on in Nancy or Heywood’s life, we get more insight into the underlying tones of the words and where some of the in jokes, which are never too exclusive, are directed.

I came away feeling I knew Nancy Mitford all the more, well as much as anyone can ever know one of their sadly deceased icons, through these letters of a friendship that lasted decades. Best of all there were times when certain things she wrote particularly struck a chord with me and that can be a rarity and feels all the more special in the instances where it happens.

‘You know my flat and now there’s not room for another bookcase. Every month I give at least 20 books to “the students” who come for them with a sack – many French writers now send me their books, with fulsome dedicaces all of which go in the sack! Unread of course…’

I really, really, really enjoyed ‘The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street’, being a fan of all things Mitford it bowled me over far more than Helene Hanff’s ’84 Charing Cross Road’ which I enjoyed but actually now think is slightly inferior to this collection of letters (though that is more personal taste and love of Nancy) and deserves to be as well read frankly. If you are a lover of the Mitford’s, and Nancy in particular, then you simply must read this book. I would also strongly suggest any lover of books to give this one a whirl; though maybe try a Mitford novel first for a flavour of the style of wit you are getting, as she might not be for everyone. I really must order ‘The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh’ back out from the library pronto.

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2012, Francis Lincoln Publishers, Heywood Hill, John Saumarez Smith, Nancy Mitford

Savidge Reads Books of 2011 – Part I

I always struggle with this every year, which books will go into my top books of 2011 and why? I am following the form of the last few years and giving you my top ten books actually published in 2011 and, in this first post, the top ten books I have read this year which were published prior to 2011. I was going to try and rewrite the reviews in a succinct paragraph but in the end have decided to take a quote from the review and if you want to read more pop on the books title and you will find yourself at the full book post. So without further ado here are the first ten…

My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier

“…the psychological intensity du Maurier weaves through the pages along with the constant sense that she could pull the rug from under you at any given moment is incredible. Before Rachel even appears herself, around 80 pages in, she is quite the presence and the reader has quite possibly made up their mind about her through Philip’s utter jealously and then suspicion of this woman. Daphne then brings in a character quite unlike the one we would imagine. It is this game of Rachel being a misunderstood sweet if tragic innocent or magnificently manipulative calculating monster that makes you turn the page, are you right about her or utterly wrong?”

Cat’s Eye – Margaret Atwood

“I myself was bullied at school, I think most kids are at some point, so maybe that’s why this rang so true with me, but I simply couldn’t shake the feeling of it and it really, really got to me. To me, though rather uncomfortable, that is the sign of a wonderful book and a wonderful writer. Through Elaine’s often distant and removed narrative I was projecting my own experiences and emotions and it, along with Atwood’s creation of course, drove ‘Cat’s Eye’ and hit home. I can feel the emotions again just writing about the book, it’s the strangest and most emotive reading experience I have had in a long time, possibly ever.”

Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively

“The other thing, apart from the clever way it is told and the great story I cant say too much about, that I loved about ‘Moon Tiger’ was Claudia herself, even though in all honesty she is not the nicest woman in the world. I found her relationship between Claudia and her daughter a difficult and occasionally heartbreaking one. (‘She will magic Claudia away like the smoke.’) She gripes about her life, she has incredibly loose morals (there is a rather shocking twist in the novel that I didn’t expect and made me queasy), isn’t really that nice about anyone and yet I loved listening to her talk about her life. I think it was her honesty. I wanted to hear and know more, even when she was at her wickedest.”

Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford

“What I love about all of Nancy’s writing (and I have also been reading the letters between her and Evelyn Waugh alongside) is her sense of humour. Some may find the setting rather twee or even irritating as she describes the naivety of the children, which soon becomes hilarious cheek and gossip, and the pompous nature of the adults in the society that Fanny and Polly frequent, I myself haven’t laughed so much at a book in quite some time.”

Up At The Villa – W. Somerset Maugham

“…a perfect book when you want something slightly familiar and yet something that completely throws you. There is a comfort in Maugham’s writing that is rather like finding a wonderful black and white film on the telly on a rainy afternoon. That probably sounds ridiculous, or a big cliché, but it sums up my experience of this book the best way I can. You can’t help but lose yourself in it and find you are left wanting to turn to the next one as soon as you can.”

Hallucinating Foucault – Patricia Duncker

“From the opening pages Duncker pulls you into a tale that at first seems like it could be one sort of book and then becomes several books rolled into one whilst remaining incredibly readable. She also shows how many tools a writer has, the book is written in first ‘unnamed’ narrative for the main but also features dream sequences, letters from Michel to Foucault and newspaper clippings and reports. It’s like she is celebrating language and its uses.”

Blaming – Elizabeth Taylor

“Her writing is beautiful yet sparse, no words are used that needn’t be. Initially though there doesn’t appear to be a huge plot there is so much going on. We observe people and what they do and how they react to circumstances learning how there is much more to every action, and indeed every page, than meets the eye. along the lines of Jennifer Johnston and Anita Brookner, whose books I have enjoyed as much, Taylor is an author who watches the world and then writes about it with a subtly and emotion that seems to capture the human condition.”

The Queen of Whale Cay – Kate Summerscale

“It is not only the life of Joe that is so fascinating, the fraught relationships with her parents, the sham marriage for inheritance, her role driving ambulances in the war (her I wondered if she was the inspiration for Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’), the endless affairs including with some very famous women, the obsession with a small doll called Lord Tod Wadley (who even had his named engraved on the front door so people would actually call for him), the buying of an island ‘Whale Cay’ and it ruling… I could go on and on.”

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

“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.

The News Where You Are – Catherine O’Flynn

“It would be easiest to describe ‘The News Where You Are’ as a tale of a local tv news reader, who is obsessed with the past and lonely people being forgotten, trying to discover the mystery behind his predecessor, and now friend’s, hit and run whilst also trying to deal with his parental relationships I would make it sound like modern day mystery meets family drama. It is, yet that summation simply doesn’t do this superb novel justice. This is a novel brimming with as many ideas and characters as it brims with joy, sadness and comedy. It’s a book that encompasses human life and all those things, emotionally and all around it physically, and celebrates them.”

So that is the first half of my list. Have you read any of these and what did you think? The next lot of lovely literature I have loved this year will be up in the not too distant future…

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books of 2011

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?

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

A New Book for a New Year

My family were really taking the mickey out of me over New Years because naturally we were talking about what we had been reading (well when me, my mother, Granny Savidge Reads and The Girl Who Read Too Much get together the conversation will of course descend into all things books) and I said that I was between books because I like to start the new reading year with a nice new read, though of course I have to be picky about what it is. They all looked at me like I had gone mad!

Maybe I am the only person in the world (unlikely) who does this? I just really like the idea that when one year ends that’s my reading palette closed, have a quick breather and then let the new year can bring in lots of new and exciting reads. It’s a habit that I have had for the last five years I think. Is it just me?  I will of course report back on my decision!

Speaking of new books that might delight me in 2011, which is of course now this year which I am also struggling to get my head round, I thought I would share some books I got for Christmas. I am thrilled to add more are coming because of the pesky snow and postal problems, so will report on those when it arrives. I did mainly get vouchers for new flat stuff though, but over to the more exciting things… new books!!

  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull – Richard Bach (from The BookBoy)
  • Witch Week – Diana Wynne Jones (from Nick of A Pile of Leaves)
  • 84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (from Mr Paul Magrs)
  • The Best of Books and Company edited by Susan Hill (from Mum)
  • A Tiny Bit Marvellous – Dawn French (from Mum)
  • Chocolate Wars – Deborah Cadbury (from Mum)

And to think more are arriving in due course. I am not sure if any of these will make it as my first read of the year, I think that might take a full day of mulling over what is in Mount TBR before I can decide, but these titles are all lovely and one could just do the job. I am beginning to think that whatever read I go for first will shape my reading year ahead and therefore it has to be REALLY good, is that too much pressure for any book?

So what books did you all get for Xmas? Any other lovely things, I seemed to get lots of vouchers for things to live in new flats which is very kind of people. Do any of you start the new year with a new book? I will be discussing New Years Reading Resolutions with you tomorrow, any suggestions, I am struggling for 2011!!

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Another Night With Novella’s

Just under a month ago I had the pleasure of a Saturday night on my own and spent it with some novella’s. Guess what? I am having another one tonight! Though some could see this as being a bit of a sad fact at 28 I would strongly disagree. This is in fact an ideal night for me when I can devote some serious time to some shorter fiction between Book Group reads, Green Carnation Longlisted books and some classics that I have planned ahead. So tonight I raided the shelves and have a host of shorter books to read…

  • 84 Charng Cross Road by Helene Hanff
  • A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
  • The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khandra
  • Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett
  • Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
  • The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham
  • Peace by Richard Bausch
  • Strangers by Antonia White
  • Strange Boy by Paul Magrs

I am going to go and get some tea (possibly a pot full) some biscuits now and then get under the duvet with a few of these delights. I might read one slowly, I might read a good fair few. Either way its going to be a treat of an evening. Let me know if you have read any or can think of any great novellas for future nights like these… I might make this a monthly event at Savidge Reads HQ! I honestly think this is a craze which could catch on.

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