Tuesday, 1 May 2012

84 Charing Cross Road

There are novels that analyse themes through the use of complicated language; then, there are novels that use an exchange of letters to discover issues and manage to have the same impact.  I consider 84, Charing Cross road by Helene Hanff to be such a novel.

A simple reply to an advertisement is the trigger to a 20-year correspondence between Hanff and Marks & Co. Chief buyer Frank Doel, that is a showcase of human relations and everyday situations that bring out the best in all of us.

Where to start... Already the fact that an American would prefer corresponding with a store in the UK to find the good quality second-hand books she's looking for is very intriguing... She already makes this point in the beginning, complaining about bookstores selling overpriced copies (was that the start of their demise?).  It's true that as a bibliophile, she cares as much about the content of a book as its appearance ("joy to the touch"), thus opting for quality copies, which are rather expensive than mass-market paperbacks (not that there's anything wrong with those - it's good that there is a choice for the consumers).

Little by little the correspondence turns away from the pure ordering and invoicing of books and starts including questions about post-war rationing in Britain.  While Hanff cannot be considered wealthy, she makes an effort to provide whatever little parcel she can with goods to ease up the austere living conditions of the employees at Marks & Co.  Would that have happened today?  that was my first question.  Would I actually have made the enquiry in the first place?  would I care about my fellow citizen's living conditions? (for that matter, would anyone care about mine?).  The end of war brought out this humanity in people - they saw the devastation in the areas hit, they knew what it meant to live on rations, and most importantly they CARED about the person next to them. A lot of food for thought...

Hanff's good deed does not remain a secret.  Other employees from Marks & Co. start corresponding with her, at first wishing to express their gratitude for the gifts, but also to provide more information about the store and about life in London.  There is an explicit trust in people, as soon enough they also propose to Hanff to go together on holiday and be put up by relatives, so as to economise! I really enjoyed this rather carefree atmosphere of the letters - the war was over, only good things could happen from then on... It made me think about the doom that surrounds our lives, where we may not fear for war, but we cannot see anything good happening anytime soon... is this a matter of mind-setting or do we have our priorities wrong?

(In the meantime, Hanff becomes an anglophile, and even enquires the recipe for Yorkshire pudding)

As the exchange of letters develops, and the correspondents get to know each other more, the style of the letters changes as well.  From the formal letterhead, the salutations and the proper closings and signatures, we see that the letters now resemble more to scribblings, with words in all capitals to show excitement, no capitals to show typing in haste in the middle of the night, exclamation points to make the point!  Slowly, proper letters between costumer and seller are transformed into little messages between friends, where more personal information is included.  Let no one question the power of a personal letter...

The story ends with the death of Doel  - after 20 years of correspondence, without ever having actually met with Hanff. Their acquaintance has made a full circle and is now ready to be published.  I found the length of the book (it is rather small)  sufficient not to turn into a melodramatic story.  This is a celebration of humanity, of books bringing out the best in people, and of the support to the person next to us (or far, far away from us).  Let us get away from our petty preoccupations, let us hope again and see the light at the end of the tunnel, and let us regain our interest in our fellow human.


  1. I read this earlier this year and absolutely loved it. I hope you're now reading The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which is her journal of when she finally got to go to London - so good!

    1. Have just started it - hope I like it just as much!

  2. You're right, it is indeed as if we synchronised our reviews!

    I hadn't thought about what you mention, that they were very open and trustful while we are easily gloomy... Maybe that's yet another reason I enjoyed that book so much, because of the hopefulness in it.

    As for the Duchess, I have to admit I'm very hesitant...

    1. me too - I'm just too curious not to read it!




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