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.