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.


84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff


Title: 84 Charing Cross Road

Author: Helene Hanff

Published: 1970

Location of the Story: New York and London from the period 1949-1969

Main Characters: Helene Hanff (freelance writer in New York), Frank Doel (bookseller in London)

The Story: This is an account of the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a freelance writer in New York and Frank Doel, an employee of a used antiquarian bookstore in London. The correspondence is spread over the years 1949 to 1969, documenting the lively dialogue between two people, with nothing in common but a knowledge and love of good books. Set in the years after World War II, the reader is treated to an insight of the reality of what it was like to live in the aftermath of the war. The book is funny and poignant and shows how people separated by great distance and circumstances can nonetheless, touch each others lives and create the most beautiful relationships.

The correspondence starts in October of 1949 when Helene Hanff responding to an advertisement in the Saturday Review of Literature, writes to ‘Marks and Co.’, located at 84 Charing Cross Road for certain antiquarian books. These are books that are unavailable to her in New York at suitable prices that are affordable to ‘a poor writer with antiquarian taste in books.’

An employee named ‘FPD’ responds to the request and supplies Miss Hanff with several of the requested books. Over the next few months we see a further exchange of letters. We witness Hanff’s friendly, sarcastic and witty personality emerge in her letters. Her letters are liberally scattered with profanities, underlined phrases and expressions written in capitalized letters for emphasis. As ebullient as Hanff is in her writing, ‘FPD’ retains a very impersonal, professional yet helpful air in accordance with his professional requirements at ‘Marks and Co’.

This impersonal attitude is broken, however, in the face of Hanff’s extreme generosity. Hanff is appalled to discover the strict rationing imposed on the British public after the war (2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month!). In sympathy she sends a hamper full of food as a Christmas present to the employees at Marks and Co.

The employees at Marks and Co. are overwhelmed by the generosity of Hanff’s gift and ‘FPD’ for the first time thanks Hanff in a letter signed ‘Frank P. Doel’. The letters continue. Hampers and food parcels are sent from Hanff to mark Easter, Christmas and other celebrations  despite her modest income and circumstances. In further correspondence little tidbits of information about Hanff and Doel’s respective lives are shared. We learn that Doel is happily married to Nora and that they have three daughters. We read about the purchase of Doel’s first family car, their brief summer holidays, how the children grow up and find employment. We also learn of the highs and lows of Hanff’s writing career. How much she would love to visit London and meet the employees of Marks and Co. in person and visit the literary landmarks of London.

What are the chances of two unrelated people, located 3500 miles apart forging such a strong connection through a series of letters particularly in the pre-internet age? Hanff and Doel demonstrate it can be done and that people can care about one another in a world riddled with hostility and hatred. Particularly in respect to the bloody, gruesome war that took place a few years before this correspondence started, the letters are particularly heartening and renew one’s confidence in the humanity prevalent in mankind.