Search This Blog

Monday, 15 February 2016


Helene's first novel, written in 1970. 
It has never been out of print since.

The first Valentine's card I ever sent was to a boy in my class at junior school when I was seven. It had a drawing of a can of tomatoes on the front with the words I want to be your tomato - can I? 

A few years later I read  84 Charing Cross Road, the celebrated novel by American writer  Helene Hanff, a collection of letters that span 20 years. Yesterday I watched the film version on television, billed as a  romance between two people who had never met.  And that's when I realised it wasn't a romance at all - just  two very different people's love affair with words.

The  novel charts the extraordinary  letters  written by Helene when she was a young would-be playwright living in New York,  to Frank Doel, chief buyer at the long established antiquarian book shop Marks & Co in London's Charing Cross Road.   The correspondence began in 1949 when the writer was searching  for the out of print Oxford book of poetry, and  very soon their mutual hunger for words grew into an unprecedented 'meeting of minds.'  Both looked forward to their letters like lovelorn pen friends.

The couple never met - she was single and he was married with two children - and never exchanged more than affectionate words  of friendship and a mutual love of fine books.  Yet these two very different people - she extrovert and he introvert -  found a kindred spirit.

Anyone who has browsed an antiquarian bookshop with its unmistakable aroma of  leather and ancient dust will understand what a love of old books is all about. Helene soon became a friend to  the staff of the bookshop, sending them food in the post war years, when ham and fresh eggs were almost impossible to find in Britain. They, in turn, sent her gifts including a hand embroidered linen tablecloth and books of rare poems. 

Struggling to earn a living - her plays were never produced - Helene never made it to England until after Frank died but she did get to see the empty bookshop not long after it had closed.  A circular brass plaque acknowledging the store, can be seen  outside the original building, which is now a coffee shop.

First published in 1970, 84 Charing Cross Road has never been out of print.


Another Guernseyman said...

I saw this film and really enjoyed it - not bad for a (non-romantic) man!! Seriously, what a shame that the old-style book shops are now closing. There used to be a fine example in Carnforth, Lancashire. Do you know if it's still there?

Guernsey Girl said...

Last time I was there I think it was for sale. Maybe I should have bought it? Thanks for your comment - I'll take a trip there very soon.

Barbara Fisher said...

Hi, Marilyn
I’ve just moved this to the very top of the pile of books on my bedside table. It’s been sitting there for ages, but I’m longing to get to it especially after reading your post.
Re the bookshop - yes, you should have bought it! :)

Guernsey Girl said...

I know you will enjoy it, Barbara. Old-fashioned romance is definitely a thing of the past!!