The Fulfillment of a Literary Dream- Helene Hanff’s ‘Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’


If you’ve read 84 Charing Cross Road, you’ll appreciate that Helene Hanff’s trip to London, the city of her literary dreams is the realization of a life-long ambition. Brought on by the success of the book describing her long-distance relationship with antiquarian bookseller Frank Doel, this journey is more than a literary pilgrimage, it is a homage to the quiet, bookish man who sparked the inspiration for the book itself. 

‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’ starts in the summer of 1971, with author Helene Hanff preparing to fly the Atlantic Ocean, in order to visit London, the city of her literary dreams.

The realization of this dream has been a long time in the making. It all started out with a correspondence between Hanff in New York and Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller in London. The correspondence spanned a number of decades and has been beautifully documented in Hanff’s memorable book ’84 Charing Cross Road’, the address of Doel’s bookshop.

The untimely death of Frank Doel resulted in Hanff’s personal tribute to the quiet but learned, kind, compassionate man with the publication of ’84 Charing Cross Road’.

In the ‘Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’, we find Hanff travelling to London to mark the launch of the British edition of ’84 Charing Cross Road’. It had always been her dream to visit literary London, but had previously been impossible due to financial constraints (in 84 CCR we learn that dental bills were partially responsible for this!).

This second book is the diary that Hanff kept during her wonderful weeks in London. If you love books and you love London, you will delight in the literary tour-de-force that Hanff takes you on, from Dickens to Donne.

This book is more than a literary tour however and does not completely project a rosy image.

It is a chance to meet with the widow of Frank Doel and this meeting is not completely free of pathos and poignancy.

The book is also peppered with Hanff’s acute observations of British life and manners. There are frequent aspersions to class distinction and snobbery.

You look at the faces in the Hilton dining room and first you want to smack them and then you just feel sorry for them, not a soul in the room looked happy

There is another isolated incident of a lady walking her poodle in Hyde Park. Hanff greets the poodle but is deterred by the sharp rebuke from the lady.

” Please don’t do that!” she said to me sharply. “I’m trying to teach him good manners.”

I thought, ” A pity he can’t do the same for you”.

Despite these observations, Hanff, intelligent and highly observant, realizes that of course, there is more to London than the ‘reek of money’.

Around every corner, there is the “hallowed hush of privilege … stories of the fairy-tale splendour of monarchy, the regal pomp of England’s Kings and Queens”.

And as Hanff so acutely observes, history is alive and flourishing in London.


Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson


Lady Rose leads a life of great privilege but it is largely bereft of love. Her parents neglect her, her first husband marries her for her money and title. So when she meets the love of her life in a commoner, on a park bench in Edinburgh, she has a momentous decision to make. Should she follow the dictates of social etiquette or shun society, follow her heart and thus lose all she holds dear?


One afternoon, a party of three people leave Edinburgh and journey along the coast of Fife, until they happen upon a huge estate with twenty feet high wrought-iron gates, bearing faded coats of arms. The party consists of Mr Dacre, an English lawyer, his wife Helen and their American friend Van Elsen and the grand estate they have stumbled upon is that of Keepsfield, estate of Lady Rose Targenet, Countess of Lochlule.

The party are shown over the house by a silver-haired, quiet housekeeper called Mrs Memmary. Filled with insatiable curiosity, Helen tries to unearth Lady Rose’s past, while observing the house, it’s rooms and the personal effects of the owner.

The past is slowly but surely revealed to the reader through the reminiscences of Mrs Memmary, stray letters and whispers from the past.

We learn of Lady Rose’s childhood, her distant parents and her loneliness at an English boarding-school. We revisit Lady Rose’s presentation at court and her decision to marry well, into a neighbouring family to thus combine their estates. Her husband is Sir Hector Galowrie and Lady Rose marries him with little knowledge of their compatibility but with a binding sense of duty to ‘marry well’.

When they marry, Lady Rose’s father suddenly dies and she is bequeathed the title of Countess of Lochlule by Queen Victoria. Lady Rose and her husband are required to reside at Keepsfield but Sir Hector deeply resents Lady Rose’s position and wealth. The marriage is loveless and unhappy but Lady Rose finds solace in her children.

Sir Hector suddenly dies in a shooting accident on the estate and though there is a jarring note in the incident, the reader realizes that this is a means of escape for Lady Rose.

Lady Rose travels to Edinburgh to speak to her lawyers and once there, happens to meet a wonderful man in Princes Street Gardens.

He is a commoner, a clerk by the name of Andrew Moray Montmary. They fall in love and decide to marry to the consternation of the entire aristocracy of England and Scotland.

Lady Rose and Moray are forced to flee to Europe, to escape society and Lady Rose is also barred from taking her children with her. The couple live a life in exile for many decades.

The story although a sweet fairytale on the surface, speaks of many deep-rooted societal issues, class snobbery being one of them. It also raises the question whether it is worthwhile shunning home and hearth, life and one’s family for the sake of true love.

As with all good books, Ruby Ferguson leaves this point as an open-ended question for the reader to ponder over.

Adult life is full of such momentous decisions and we are often faced with the repercussions of the choices we make, for better or for worse.

Filled with beautiful descriptive writing, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is a sweet love letter to Scotland and so much more. The story aims to address prejudice regarding class consciousness and certainly reaffirms the belief that marrying for love is of paramount importance.

Title: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary
Author: Ruby Ferguson
Year Published: 1937
Setting: Fife, Scotland.
Characters: Lady Rose (Countess of Lochlule), Mrs Memmary, Helen Dacre, Sir Hector Galowrie, Andrew Moray Montmary.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark


‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark tells of the rise and fall of an unconventional Edinburgh schoolteacher, Miss Jean Brodie and the strange love triangle she shares with two fellow schoolteachers.

The story is told by an omniscient narrator, in the present and in flash-forwards and hence, the pieces of the story are revealed in fragments. The mode of storytelling and the tension fraught in its format, makes it quick and compelling reading.

At various intervals in her career, Miss Jean Brodie handpicks a a select group of girls from her elite Edinburgh school, whom she trains in private. She educates them in her own particular modes of wisdom and she calls them the ‘créme de la créme’. Jean Brodie’s  specialised curriculum consists of information including but not limited to the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the  Italian Renaissance painters, the advantages of cleansing cream and witch hazel over soap, the meaning of the word ‘menarche’ and the interior decoration of the London house of the author A.A. Milne.

The six selected girls are famous for different things. Monica Douglas for mathematics, Rose Stanley for sex (or I suppose her suspected potential), Eunice Gardiner for gymnastics, Sandy Stranger for her enunciation, Jenny Gray for her grace, and Mary Macgregor for her silence.

Jean Brodie’s unconventional teaching methods are frowned upon by the school authorities, who are continually searching for reasons to dismiss her. It is only the Brodie set that are close enough to Jean Brodie, to be able to acquire incriminating evidence against her and thus betray her. There is one person among the set who betrays Jean Brodie, and the latter  spends her entire life brooding upon the identity of this betrayer. It is beyond her comprehension that someone out of the group of girls-  a group that she has given up the best years of her life and even sacrificed her love life for, should thus stab her in the back.

While the girls are being trained, they were also privy to the emotional and personal life of Jean Brody- a lady in her prime ( a term that is repeated and reinstated in the novel several times) and embroiled in a complex relationship with two scoolmasters – the singing teacher Gordon Lowther and the handsome, one-armed war veteran Teddy Lloyd.

The betrayer of Jean Brodie is someone who also gets involved in this love triangle, thus proving that often jealousy arising from love can overwhelm loyal and decent relationships.

The book is full of such unusual and challenging relationship dynamics. It is also a book about morals and ethics and politics. Jean Brodie in her ‘prime’ forsakes morals and chooses to sleep with the singing teacher, while all the time nurturing a deep, obsessive passion for the art teacher.

There is a displacement of love in the story, such that physical love is only shown to occur between individuals who do not care for one another. A cycle of retribution seems to occur so that Jean Brodie is ultimately punished for her seemingly unrelated action of sleeping with the singing teacher.

The humour in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ is very dark and best described as black comedy. It’s hard for me to exactly pinpoint what the essence of the novel is about. To me it feels like a commentary on the rejection of all things conventional and a lesson on the havoc it may create.