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.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier for the #1951BookClub


This book review of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne du Maurier is in conjunction with the 1951 Book Club of Simon David Thomas Stuck in a Book and Karen Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings


‘My Cousin Rachel’ is the story of a man’s curiosity surrounding the sinister conditions of his beloved cousin’s death, his suspicions regarding his cousin’s widow’s involvement in the death, her motives and character and most importantly his all-consuming love for her…


Phillip Ashley, orphaned at a very young age, had been brought up rather unconventionally by his uncle, Ambrose Ashley, owner of a large estate in Cornwall. The bond between the two men is naturally quite strong. Not only does young Phillip strongly resemble his uncle, they share similar temperaments and character traits. The pair shun society, particularly that of women, and lead a rough and tumble existence, ignoring social etiquette and depending on the services of a band of loyal servants to keep the household running.

Phillip had been reared and trained to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and is in every way, the heir to Ambrose Ashley’s personal estate and fortune.

Due to reasons of ill health, Ambrose Ashley is advised to avoid the damp English winters and to spend this time, building his health in warmer climes.

Ambrose reluctantly leaves his estate in the hands of his young cousin, freshly returned from college and travels to Florence, Italy. There he meets and falls in love with a widowed countess, the half-English half-Italian Rachel.

Phillip upon hearing the news of his cousin’s marriage is shocked and secretly jealous. Ambrose had always been misogynistic in his attitudes and this had rubbed off on his impressionable young cousin.

Ambrose, wracked with headaches, writes less frequently to his cousin in England but on occasion sends troubled notes, expressing his concerns regarding the character, motives and spending habits of his wife Rachel.

The suspicions turn morbid, which are revealed in scattered excerpts of letters, revealed here and there. The symptoms concur with that of a lethal brain tumour that Ambrose is suspected to be afflicted with.

When Ambrose’s last letters send out a frantic plea for help and rescue from his wife’s clutches, Phillip travels hurriedly to Florence, only to learn of Ambrose’s sudden demise upon arrival.

When Phillip returns heartbroken to Cornwall, to pick up the reigns of the family estate, he finds the entire property and Ambrose’s wealth has been bequeathed to him, with nothing going to his widow.

Phillip, convinced that Rachel is responsible for his cousin’s death, steels his mind against his widowed cousin, when she suddenly decides to visit Cornwall and Ambrose’s estate. But slowly and surely, Rachel infiltrates Phillip’s life and converts his doubts and anger regarding her to infatuation.

From time to time though, through fragments of letters that are retrieved from the past, or from the gossip of acquaintances who knew Rachel, or from Rachel’s actions and abrupt and often mercenary behaviour, the all- pervading nagging doubt resurfaces – is Cousin Rachel all that she seems?

What struck me the most when reading this novel was how compelling the storytelling was. From the very outset the book was an absolute page turner.

du Maurier employs the usage of an unreliable narrator, a man who is clearly swayed by emotion, as a wonderful plot device to inject tremendous psychological tension in a taut, highly strung story.

We are kept continually guessing whether Rachel is the scheming, conniving temptress- a figment of a misogynistic mind, or a sweet tempered considerate woman with a tendency to overspend.

I was reminded of Hitchcock’s film ‘Suspicion’ when reading this book. Both the book and the movie deal with similar themes and are wrought with the same psychological manipulation of the human mind.

With Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, du Maurier, to my mind, reaches the pinnacle of her storytelling powers. She has a genius for creating such fleshed out, memorable characters who participate in well constructed, gripping plots. With these two books, du Maurier exhibits consummate literary skill that far exceeds the romantic entanglements and wild plots that we tend to associate her with. She is a highly underrated author who deserves to be in the limelight.



Title: My Cousin Rachel

Author: Daphne du Maurier

Published: 1951

Setting: Cornwall, England

Characters: Phillip Ashley, Ambrose Ashley, Rachel Ashley, Signor Rainaldi, Nicholas Kendall.







To read more reviews of books published in 1951 please visit here and Karen’s blog. 


10 Contemporary Authors I Enjoy Reading


I am a bit of an old soul. Though I may be physically present in the now, my mind flitters off away into bygone eras- the heyday of the 1920’s, the Depression of the 1930’s or the tumultuous times of the Great and Second World Wars. I wonder what it must have been like to live in the Regency, Victorian or Edwardian periods or in Imperial Russia.  If only I could travel back in time armed with a  package of antibiotics and an iPad!

It is quite natural that my reading should be centered on mostly writing from these periods and genres.  That is not to say that I do not enjoy a few contemporary authors and I hope to build on that list in the following years. Ironically, most of these authors write of bygone eras or have an old-fashioned way with words.

Here in no particular order are a few of my most read, contemporary authors:

1) Alexander McCall Smith:

McCall Smith is perhaps my most beloved contemporary author. I’ve enjoyed delving into both his Isabel Dalhousie series and 44 Scotland Street series, both set in Edinburgh. I’ve also enjoyed the simple stories of the Mme Ramotswe set in Africa. His stories have a simple charm, offer great minute details into daily life and a dry humour. He reminds me of a male Barbara Pym or a modern day PG Wodehouse.

2) Kate Atkinson:

I read Atkinson’s ‘Life after Life’ which was a stunning novel written in an unusual format telling of an individual’s experience of the second World War. There was great depth to the historical detail provided by Atkinson’s storytelling. I cannot wait to read more.

3) Jacqueline Winspear:

If you like the ‘cozy mystery’ genre and if you enjoy historical fiction, then Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is for you. I appreciate Winspear’s great attention to historical detail and exacting prose. She has an eye for documenting the minutia of everyday life.

4)Peter Mayle:

There are a number of books describing expat life in the South of France, but few do so as evocatively as Peter Mayle. All the sights, sounds and flavours of Provençal life are embodied in his sunny, descriptive prose.

5) Paula McLain:

I greatly enjoyed McLain’s novel .’The Paris Wife’, providing a fictional (yet quite believable) account of Hemingway’s life in Paris from the perspective of his first wife Hadley. The narrative is smooth and free flowing and very engaging.

6) PD James:

I remember being quite absorbed with PD James’ Cordelia Grey mystery, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Though decidedly gritty, it was one of those mystery/thrillers that you really cannot put down.

7) Colin Dexter:

Dexter weaves a wonderful web of mystery and history on the streets of Oxford in his Inspector Morse series. They are fast, intelligent and absorbing reads.

8) Helen Fielding:

I grew up reading Fielding’s entertaining ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’. I have a great love for the epistolary format of storytelling and Fielding’s depiction of a modern day ‘Pride and Prejudice’ scenario is both refreshing and extremely funny.

9) JK Rowling:

Where would we be without the magical world Rowling has created in her Harry Potter novels? Just as I grew up with the magic of Enid Blyton and CS Lewis’s stories, many generations of children have already grown up with the comfort of the mystical realm of these fantasy novels.

10) Vikram Seth:

I do believe that Seth’s magnum opus ‘A Suitable Boy’ will be a classic that will be remembered and loved many years from now. Not only is his prose lovely, the scope of his novel is quite breathtaking and true to the narrow slice of historical time he has depicted in post- Independence India.

An Equal Music is another favourite book of mine.

Other authors I wish to read soon are  Donna Tartt, Murakami, Adichie and many others.

Tell me, who your favourite authors are, who are living in the present day and age?

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie


‘Five Little Pigs’ deals with the story of a woman who has been convicted and killed for the murder of her husband- the reputable bohemian artist Amyas Crale. Caroline Crale, his wife, is sentenced to death for poisoning her husband, by lacing his drink with the lethal poison coniine. While all the clues point towards Caroline Crale as having committed the crime, in a posthumous letter to her daughter, Caroline admits her innocence.

Caroline’s daughter comes into possession of her mother’s letter  after coming of age. Upon reading its contents she asks the famous detective Hercule Poirot, to investigate the facts of the case and thereby rescue her mother’s name from ignominy.

After Poirot learns of all the facts, he concludes that there are five likely suspects. He likens their personas to the five little pigs of the nursery rhyme.

There is the long time family friend Phillip Blake (a stick-broker- ‘this little pig went to market’), his brother, the reclusive Meredith Blake (amateur herbalist-‘this little pig stayed at home’), Elsa Greer, Amyas’s greedy lover (‘this little pig had roast beef’), impoverished governess Cecilia Williams (‘this little pig had none’) and lastly, the wronged and disfigured step-sister of Caroline Crale-Angela Warren (‘this little pig cried all the way home’).

Sixteen years have passed, but Poirot is determined to unveil the truth behind the murder.

There are a number of people with motives: Caroline Crale was jealous of her husband’s affair with Elsa Greer and is therefore, the prime suspect.

As with all Christie novels, this mystery has you guessing till the last moment. The story is told beautifully from multiple personal narratives and points of view.

‘Five Little Pigs’ has a very good plot and this one in particular is all about understanding the psychology and emotions of the players.

I did miss Hastings and Inspector Japp, however, and Poirot’s musings were shown to a lesser extent than in other novels. Despite that, ‘Five Little Pigs’ is one of those Christies that must be read if you are a fan of her work.

Title: Five Little Pigs

Author: Agatha Christie

First Published: 1942

Setting: Alderbury Estate, Devonshire, England

Main Characters: Hercule Poirot, Amyas Crale, Caroline Crale, Elsa Greer, Phillip and Meredith Blake, Cecilia Williams, Angela Warren

Note: Some of the above links are Amazon Affiliate links, which at no extra cost to you, will earn me a small commission and reduce the costs of running this site. Please know that every product is genuinely recommended. Thank you for your support.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: First Impressions


‘Mrs Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf, follows a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, middle aged, graying wife of eminent British politician, Richard Dalloway. It is no ordinary day, however. It is the day on which Clarissa will host a glittering evening party, where the creme-de-la-creme of British high society, including the Prime Minister himself, will grace the Dalloway’s Westminster residence.

The novel in its most simplistic form can be viewed as a day in the life of a lonely, married woman but it is so much more than that. It is a novel dealing with many topics of far-reaching significance, not limited to mental illness, the aftermath of the First World War, class structure and homoerotic love.

The narrative structure switches fluidly from the third person to the first person, giving the reader an intimate view of the external and internal worlds of the characters in the novel. The use of free indirect discourse makes us privy to moments of flawless and breathtaking intimacy.

The novel (originally called ‘The Hours’) is leant great structure by the division of the hours of the day by the regular, metallic intonations of Big Ben’s chimes. The regular reverberations help to provide pause to a novel, otherwise lacking in chapters or page breaks- ‘the leaden circles dissolved in the air’.

Despite the novel covering the incidents encompassing a single day, we find time expands and we effortlessly dip into Clarissa Dalloway’s past- her memories at Bourton and the friends she had in her youth. We meet her childhood sweetheart Peter Walsh and also the love of her life Sally Seton. We also meet Richard Dalloway, whom she eventually decides to marry.

The plot of the novel is rather loose but it holds the threads of the stories of several individuals who are directly or indirectly related to one another.

There is the thread of former sweetheart Peter Walsh, freshly returned from India, and trying to secure the divorce of a fresh flame- a married woman in India. He briefly visits Clarissa on the morning of her party and is struck with how much he still loves her.

There is the thread of Richard Dalloway, who shares a sterile yet companionable relationship with his wife of many years. There is a memorable moment when he spontaneously decides to bring Clarissa flowers in the afternoon but despite exerting considerable effort, finds himself unable to tell her that he loves her.

Then there is the thread of daughter Elizabeth Dalloway and her relationship with tutor Miss Kilman. Clarissa finds herself disturbed with their close relationship whereas staid Richard Dalloway brushes it off as being nothing.

Most importantly there is the thread of Septimus Warren Smith, war veteran, victim of shell shock and his Italian wife Lucrezia Warren-Smith. Theirs is a poignant story, where the wife recognizing signs that her husband has lost the will to live, battles to secure his mental well-being and lives in constant fear that he will take his own life.

The collective threads of the story are brought together in climax at Clarissa’s evening party, when Peter Walsh, Sally Seton, other friends, family and members of the Dalloway social circle (including Septimus’ physician Sir William Bradshaw) congregate at their home. It is here that the news of Septimus Warren-Smith’s death by suicide  reaches the ears of Clarissa. Her spontaneous reaction to the news is one of annoyance that the Bradshaws should sully the mood of her party with this unwanted piece of information. By being privy to Clarissa’s inner thoughts we witness her raw, self-centred but honest reaction to the death of a man she never knew. Despite her jarring initial reaction, we later find Clarissa, drawing away from the party and musing privately about the life of the man and the circumstances of his death.

In a way Woolf uses ‘Mrs Dalloway’ as a medium to criticize the treatment and understanding of mental health issues, a subject that was very near to her heart.

Perhaps parts of Woolf herself are strewn in bits and pieces across the broad scope of the novel. She inhabits the personas of many of her main characters but it is evident that she doesn’t wholly inhabit any of them. She and Leonard Woolf are not as upper middle class as the Dalloways, neither is she the slightly mindless socialite that is Clarissa Dalloway. Woolf does share the mental issues of Septimus Warren- Smith ,however, and traces of her relationships with men and women are to be found in ‘Mrs Dalloway’.

‘Mrs Dalloway’ is a book that I have a feeling I will read many times, to distill further insights and information upon successive  readings. Moreover, delving into that beautiful prose is a treat unto itself, even though the reading experience is not the easiest.

Title: Mrs Dalloway

Author: Virginia Woolf

First published: 1925

Characters: Clarissa Dalloway, Richard Dalloway, Peter Walsh, Sally Seton, Septimus Warren-Smith

Note: Some of the above links are Amazon Affiliate links, which at no extra cost to you, will earn me a small commission and reduce the costs of running this site. Please know that every product is genuinely recommended. Thank you for your support.