❉ An appreciation of the literary career of the ’84 Charing Cross Road’ writer.
“84 Charing Cross Road, the story of Hanff’s transatlantic pen pal friendship with an antiquarian bookseller was her unexpected hit, giving hope to all undiscovered writers past their first flush of youth… Later adapted for TV, stage and a very handsome film, the success of this one book, has overshadowed other books by Helene Hanff, similarly based on her life experiences.”
The writer Helene Hanff was in her mid-fifties when she finally experienced success with the publication of her book 84 Charing Cross Road, fifty years ago, in 1970. Since her teens she had laboured to find a market for her talents as an author. She spent twenty years penning plays, many of which landed on the desks of agents and producers, but none of which made it to the stage. She wrote books and magazine articles, the majority of which generated nothing but rejection letters. For several years, she made a decent living writing scripts for the TV detective show The Adventures of Ellery Queen, until it headed to Hollywood. She made a little income writing educational books for children, but this was, as she put it, “a very good way to starve to death”
84 Charing Cross Road, the story of Hanff’s transatlantic pen pal friendship with an antiquarian bookseller at that London address was her unexpected hit, giving hope to all undiscovered writers past their first flush of youth. Told in epistolary form, the book was never expected to be a big hit – Hanff herself accepted that it would be “a cult book“. Nevertheless the combination of old books, warm friendship, and transatlantic culture clashes, set against the social changes from the 1940s to the 1960s gave 84 Charing Cross Road a dedicated readership. Later adapted for TV, stage and a very handsome film, the success of this one book, has overshadowed other books by Helene Hanff, similarly based on her life experiences.
Her first such volume had actually appeared in 1961. Entitled Underfoot in Show Business, it describes Hanff’s adventures as a young author, moving to New York and her unsuccessful attempts to make it big on Broadway. The book received upbeat reviews, but was not a commercial success at the time. This is a shame, as it beautifully evokes the atmosphere of New York in the 30s and 40s, told with martini-dry wit by somebody who, as she admits at the start of the book, failed to achieve her playwright dreams.
After the success of 84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff finally crossed the Atlantic to visit London for the UK launch of the book. The journal of her visit, entitled The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, is usually packaged with 84 Charing Cross Road in reprints of recent years. Logically, they make a good pairing, but 84 is by far the more enjoyable experience. In that, the difference between the plain-speaking, relaxed New Yorker, and the buttoned-down London bookseller is a charming contrast.
In Duchess, the New Yorker makes it to London, and finds herself being shunted around by dreadfully snooty and uptight sorts, including a retired military man who thinks the British Empire should be restored, and a cousin of George VI, who pleasantly informs her that he loathes women in trousers. You can hear Hanff struggling to remain a polite visitor to these boorish snobs- and the readers will share her relief on the occasional moments when she vents her irritation.
Hanff is on home turf in Apple of my Eye, originally published as copy for a photographic guide to New York, but then re-released in a pleasingly trim, text-only edition. This book was written in the hot summer of 1976 when the city was in an economic crisis. While the writer’s trademark wit is still present, she doesn’t shy away from the hardship and grittiness to be found in mid-1970s NYC. There’s also a moment that is eerily prescient, when she and her companion first step into the newly-opened World Trade Center.
For someone who built books around her own life, Helene Hanff still seems to have valued her privacy. She is selective about what she shares in her slim, carefully-constructed works, and there are frequent gaps in time. Her next book was published in 1985, with a title referring to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the academic whose work she acknowledges as a major influence – Q’s Legacy. This is essentially a collection of long-form essays describing events in her life that she cared to share, such as her involvement in the TV and stage adaptations of 84 Charing Cross Road. The opening chapter ‘How It All Started’ tells some of the situations shown in her first two books, but the fresh perspective of an older eye stops the reader from feeling short-changed.
Hanff’s final book Letter From New York (1992) is a compilation of transcripts from a slot of the same name that she had for several years on the BBC radio programme, Woman’s Hour. The idea plays to what her cult audience expected – New York charm meets a British institution, but the fact that these were only five-minute radio slots means that collected in book form, they have a fragmentary feel. There’s a softer-edged air here, and perhaps a few too many sentimental anecdotes about the pooches that frequent Central Park, but her skill at sketching places and characters is a strong as ever.
If you’ve never read Helene Hanff before, or only know her through her cult hit 84 Charing Cross Road, then I’d encourage you to find out more. Of course, with most of her books now out of print, that might mean contacting a few secondhand bookshops. That feels appropriate.
❉ ‘84 Charing Cross Road’ and ‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’ are available in a single paperback volume, published by Virago. Both of them, and ‘Underfoot in Show Business’ are also available on Kindle.
❉ Mark Trevor Owen is a freelance writer, based in the Isle of Man. He writes about various subjects, including books, vintage TV and Manx culture. You can find out more on his website www.marktrevorowen.com or on Twitter @MarkTrevorOwen