Hi everyone! Nicky again, with one of my reviews about books that feature mail!
Last time I wrote about books for the blog, I was enthusing over Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Documents in the Case, a mystery novel which relies almost totally on written evidence. This time, I’m talking about something completely different: 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff.
84 Charing Cross Road is actually non-fiction: Helene Hanff was a writer and screenwriter from New York, who entered into a 20-year correspondence with a bookshop on Charing Cross Road, in London. She corresponded at first with a man named Frank Doel, but her funny letters and generous presents (such as food parcels containing food British people couldn’t obtain at the time due to rationing) quickly endeared her to the entire staff and to their families.
After Frank Doel’s death, she decided to publish some of their correspondence, and this was published as the book 84 Charing Cross Road — which is the book Helene (you can’t call her by her surname after reading this book) is best remembered for!
Reading the collection, I couldn’t help but quote bits aloud to my wife, almost every other page! Helene’s letters are warm and witty, and while Frank’s replies are rather more reserved, you can see an odd sort of friendship developing between them. Here’s one of the letters where she teases him for taking a while to find her a book:
“Dear Speed—You dizzy me, rushing Leigh Hunt and the Vulgate over here whizbang like that. You probably don’t realize it, but it’s hardly more than two years since I ordered them. You keep going at this rate you’re gonna give yourself a heart attack.”
It sounds like the plot of a romance, but Frank Doel was happily married, and… well, I’ll warn you all ahead of time: he and Helene never met. Throughout the letters she refers again and again to a visit that she never manages — at least not until after his sudden death and the closure of the shop where he worked.
My copy (from Sphere, published in 2010) does include The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, a book which collects Helene’s journal entries from her trip to London. It’s a satisfying follow-up if you’ve got attached to everyone via their correspondence in 84 Charing Cross Road, because you get to hear a little more from Nora (Frank’s wife), and Helene’s joy at finally reaching London is palpable.
I found it a really enjoyable read — though I almost found it difficult to believe that these people really existed and really sent these letters! There’s something incredibly sweet about their 20-year correspondence, short as it seems from this rather selective collection. It’s quite easy to dip in and out of, too, if you’re looking for a short/easy read. I loved it, and definitely recommend it!
I’m still taking suggestions for books about mail and mail-related topics, so do let me know any new ones you’ve thought of! I love non-fiction as well as fiction, and I’m totally open in terms of genre. The next post will probably be about Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal… but I’m notoriously capricious about reading, so I’m making no promises!