12 February 2013

Helene Hanff and Frank Doel - a 20 year relationship

In my younger son’s last year at high school, he asked me one night if I could read a novel, review it and submit it for his English class the next morning. The conversation went like this:

Me: are you insane?
Him: sorry mum but I am desperate.
Me: no, never, not on your life. It would be cheating.
Him: this doesn't count towards my final results, but I will never get into the university faculty of my choice if I don’t get each assignment in.
Me: too bad. When did you receive this assignment?
Him: three weeks ago. I didn’t do it because I don’t like reading crappy old novels. But you do!
Me (hurt): Sheesh. I got into the university because I did all my high school essays! Whether I liked the subject or not.
Him (sensing a weakness): ok, I will look after your computer for the rest of your life, if you do this one thing.
Me (giving up): alright. Give me the slimmest novel ever written in the entire English-speaking universe. Make sure it is a book I already know very well!

Thus I came to re-read 84 Charing Cross Road, written by Helene Hanff and published in 1970. 

Cover photograph
used for the book: 84, Charing Cross Road

The book told the true story of American writer Helene Hanff (1916–97)’s 20 years of correspondence with Englishman Frank Doel (1908–68), chief buyer for the London bookshop, Marks and Co. Hanff didn’t have any money but she had a passion for out-of-print British classics which she could not find in New York. Doel read her impersonal first note (in response to a newspaper advertisement) in late 1949, and from then on, the two “strangers” became closer and closer.

The letters weren’t just about books, although Chaucer, Jane Austen, John Donne, Samuel Pepys and others were what this particular American yearned for. Hanff understood how difficult it was that bombed-out London was still suffering from food rationing which did not end until July 1954. She personally helped the shop's staff, sending them delicious and otherwise unobtainable food parcels. Soon Hanff was corresponding not only with Doel, but with his gentle, patient wife and with all the staff at Marks & Co.

Hanff’s obituaries, published in 1997, were full of information that I did not know about.  Her letters to London evolved into accounts of life in New York and the Brooklyn Dodgers. In one letter, she described making her first Yorkshire pudding from a recipe sent by one of the staff. In return, the staff sent her first editions of her favourite poets and Irish linen tablecloths, embroidered by Frank Doel's next door neighbour.

Hanff lived a very modest life herself. Her one-roomed Manhatten flat started to fill up with precious second hand books that arrived from London. Of course the Anglophile American longed to travel abroad, to “see the England of English literature”. So why oh why didn’t she travel? The book does not give a definitive answer, but The Telegraph does. As the years passed, she could never afford to make the trip. Single and childless, she lived a hand-to-mouth exist­ence as a writer of children’s history books, television scripts and magazine articles, but regarded herself as a failed playwright. And perhaps she feared the idea of travelling thousands of kilometres from home, all alone.

Hanff had a very special relationship with Frank Doel, with the bookshop and with London, but it was a relationship based solely on paper. In January 1969 Marks & Co informed her that Doel had tragically died, before she had ever met him face to face. I wept when I read this part of the book. And of course the bookshop had to close.

Hanff did finally visit Charing Cross Road, to examine the now-empty shop two years after Doel had died. She was delighted to spend quality time with Frank Doel's widow and daughter, women who treated the American with as much affection as Frank himself would have done. Hanff also tried to see all the places of literary and historical interest that she could reach from London, knowing that she would never travel across the Atlantic again. It was blissful. 

Hanff died in 1997.

I too am a passionate Anglophile and bibliophile, so I suppose I have to thank my son for getting out the Hanff book once again. But don’t try that stunt again, son!


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
Now this is a rather unusual reason to find oneself reading a book but we are not only delighted that you discovered it, albeit in this way and partly on account of your son, but also that you so enjoyed it.

Andrew said...

I thought it was a wonderful book but I had forgotten how how moving it was. I hope you take full advantage of your deal and always have a smoothly running computer.

Essendonian said...

So what marks did you get for your review?

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

a slim book, but how amazing that people from very different worlds could find each other. I know their relationship really did happen, but it reads like a novel, don't you think?

Hels said...


a VERY moving story. The English family and the bookroom staff were still struggling in the devastations of post-war London. The American lived in a single room, with no family and few dreams of literary success.

Hels said...


wouldn't it be disappointing if I, a reasonably literate adult, received an average mark or lower :( Fortunately I did well, but the experience made me more sensitive to students' anxieties.

Re your avatar, the commemorative plaque for dead soldiers from WW1. As it happens, I loved that bit of history, and wrote it up in Dead Man's Penny: http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2010/07/dead-mans-penny-memorialising-young.html

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, How could you review '84 Charing Cross' when a novel was assigned? I somehow missed both the book and the movie before, but now I will put them on my list.

I think the story would have even more appeal today, when the second-hand book business has for the most part become so impersonal, and the act of buying books has become divorced from the intellectual appreciation of them.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


It is a rare occasion when I love a film, after having read the book first. If the book was wonderful, somehow the film seems to go off on its own tangent and invariably disappoints the book fans.

Except for 84 Charing Cross Rd! Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins were wonderful, and Judi Dench filled out the wife's role beautifully.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story, wonderful book, film not so wonderful to my mind.

Jim of Olym
PS when is Hels going to publish HER book?

Hels said...


I publish the blog each year and send copies to each of the state libraries, but I don't suppose that is what you mean :)
Alas I couldn't write a novel to save myself! Wait a sec... Look at Deborah Moggach's novel - Tulip Fever! I could do that!

What about you?

nothingprofound said...

A wonderful movie was made from the book, which I'm sure you've seen. A touching and bittersweet story.

Hels said...


Good to see you :) I try never to see a film of a book I have loved, to avoid inevitable disappointment. But I was a captive audience, squished in a plane going overseas, and thought I may as well watch. The film turned out to be handled very sensitively.

Emm in London said...

What an incredibly moving story! I have met people online who I've later gone on to meet in real life and it has been the most rewarding, touching experience. I really relate to this. I must try find this shop!

Hels said...


that is so true. In the MIRC channel I ran on line since 1993, there were 38 weddings WITHIN the channel. Many of them between people from different countries who bonded first on-line and only later met face to face.

How much more powerful it must have been for Ms Hanff, isolated in her one room, cut off from the books she craved. Apparently she drove the postman crazy, waiting for the letters and the parcels :)

Hels said...

In a post on the Indian film The Lunchbox, I have drawn a link to Helene Hanff's book 84 Charing Cross Rd. The idea that two people can become close, and even intimate friends, without ever having met, is an appealing one.