Epistolary Books Part 2 – Helene Hanff – A Prescription for Literary Bliss

November 6th, 2009

 This summer, after reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society written by Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, I was reminded of a few other ‘epistolary’ books or books of letters that I have read. The first one was a much beloved book from my childhood called Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster. Webster also wrote the book, Dear Enemy as a series of letters. Another great epistolary book that I love is 84 Charring Cross Road written by Helene Hanff.

If you have yet to discover the writing of Helene Hanff, I am sorry to tell you this, but your life is a sore, empty, scabby little pit and you should remedy it immediately by reading one of her books. Her writing is like a half starved fox terrier, barely managing to hang on by her pinky toenail, sucking all the marrow out of life as she hangs there, brazenly telling the truth, very aware of her limitations, deeply in love with great literature , and fiercely determined to keep herself going no matter how hard, how stony, how slippery the path. Oh! And she makes you laugh the entire way. Her warmth, her humor, her hardscrabble determination are unlike any writer I have ever found.

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A History of Helene Hanff…

Helene grew up in Philadelphia, the daughter of a shirt salesman. Her parents were theater nuts and her dad traded new shirts for tickets in order to take his entire family to a show every week. Like her family, Helene loved the theater and hoped to become a playwrite, but the 1930′s were hard times for the Levy-Hanff family. Helene was only able to attend college for one year on a scholarship that was cancelled due to monetary restrictions. She came home and took a summer job at a bookstore, but business was so slow, she had plenty of time to educate herself with books from the public library. Her principle guide through her self-education was the book On The Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. With Quiller or “Q” as she came to call him, as her teacher, she slowly worked her way through all the classic tomes from Paradise Lost to Shakespeare. “Q” was an Oxford Professor who wrote in a manner that was easy to understand and even though Helene did not at first agree with his insistence on speaking plainly rather than using flowery phrasing to communicate, it is clear in her own writing that she eventually embraced “Q’s” idea of writing simply and concisely rather than writing to demonstrate how many big words one can use in a sentence.

Helene’s paycheck was needed to help her family. She worked a succession of jobs, but her heart was not in any of them. In her spare time she wrote plays in her bedroom and in 1938 Helene entered one of her plays into a national competition. She was chosen as one of fifteen winners and was awarded a $1500 scholarship which allowed her to move to New York and begin to work toward her dream of writing a Broadway play. The year’s previous winners of the same contest were Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Given this illustrious start, it would seem that Helene was a shoe-in to become a success. Over the next ten years she wrote twenty plays and though her plays were often highly regarded by various leaders in the industry, not one of them was ever produced. In the mean time, Helene was living a bare bones existence in New York City, residing in sketchy hotels in edgy neighborhoods and scraping together just enough to keep herself fed. She always managed to find jobs that allowed her to hone her skills as a writer and also kept her in the world of theater. She read scripts and typed up synopsis’s for publishers. She eventually wrote for television and when that venue picked up and moved to Hollywood, she wrote children’s history books and magazine articles. She rarely had any money to spare, but when she did, she often spent it on great books and that is how her correspondence with the London book shop ‘Marks and Co’ located at 84 Charring Cross Road in London came to be.

Searching for many of the books that her ‘teacher’ Sir Arthur’ or ‘Q’ directed her to read was not always easy. These were often rare collectons of English poets, or books that were long unpublished. The antique book stores in New York where she could have probably found many of these books intimidated her with their rarefied atmospheres and she was sure she could not afford their prices. She saw an ad for a bookshop in London that seemed as if it would have many of the books for which she was looking. She was sure that this store would also be out of her price range, but where stepping into an elegant bookshop was intimidating to a poor, struggling, playwrite – writing a letter to a store in London was her strong suit. She quickly found that Marks and Co. not only had the books she was looking for, but that they were downright cheap! Thus began a twenty year letter exchange with a London bookshop and primarily with Mr. Frank Doel,the store’s buyer, that would eventually become the exquisite little book – 84 Charring Cross Road. Sadly, ‘Charring Cross’ was not written until after Frank Doel’s death and Helene was never able to meet him in person nor visit the bookstore that had provided her with so many wonderful books as the shop closed not long after Frank died.

Still, 84 Charring Cross Road became a cult hit. It may not have sold huge numbers, but it created a devoted fan base for Helene and filled her life with fan mail for the rest of her days. The small success of the book allowed her to finally visit England and that visit resulted in a second book called The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which chronicled her first trip to London during which she instructs her hotel bartender how to properly make a martini, is overjoyed to visit many of the literary sites that have meant so much to her and is the toast of the town and invited to dine with the rich and famous of London for entire an month of her life. For a woman who has spent her adulthood barely getting by, the entire episode is a shock to her system and yet she narrartes it with the same down to earth, humorous, wry commentary that one comes to love and to expect with Helene.

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A Prescription for Literary Bliss

Helene went on to write several more books after the success of 84 Charring Cross Road. I have read all of them except for the New York travel books (and they are next in line on my nightstand). In order to fully appreciate the writing of Helene Hanff, I am going to give you a prescription for literary bliss – or a road map to reading Hanff – because I think it will make your experience with this particular author even more rewarding.

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1 – Watch 84 Charring Cross Road the movie starring Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel and Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff. This movie is beautifully done and extremely faithful to the book. After viewing it, you will be able to picture Anthony Hopkins’ ever so understated and charmingly clipped interpretation of Frank Doel and even more importantly you will hear Anne Bancroft’s wrenching New York accent in your head when you read Helene’s letters. I really think that having Anne Bancroft’s voice in your head is critical. If you are reading Helene and have a Midwestern voice in your head, or a southern voice in your head, or a fragile feminine voice in your head, or a breezy romantic voice in your head, or your own voice in your head (unless your own voice is a wrenching New York accent) you are not going to understand her nearly as well as you will if Anne Bancroft’s voice is in your head. Trust me on this. It is very important.

2. Read 84 Charring Cross Road. It won’t take long as there are only 97 pages.

3. Take some time to recover from the sheer delight of reading this wonderful little book.

4. Read The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

5. Plan a trip to London based on Helene’s trip in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. Who cares if you actually take the trip ? The point is just to plan the trip… so you are ready… just in case a plane ticket to London falls out of the sky and lands in your purse or something.

6. Read Underfoot in Show Business - a book that takes you through the years that poverty stricken Helene struggled to write a successful play. As strange as it may seem, this is a highly entertaining book. You will meet Helen’s best friend, Maxine – a struggling New York actress. You will move with Helene from one run-down studio apartment to another, including one where five people share a communal kitchen that no one wants to clean, but everyone wants to control. You will spend a summer at a writer’s colony where there are a whole bunch of rules that everyone breaks. But mostly – you will live the life of a New York artist who refuses to give up on her dream no matter how hard it gets.

7. Reluctantly pick up Q’s Legacy - a book that Helene wrote about the man who inspired her to spend a lifetime reading the great books of all time. Figure that this book will be a long, tiresome ode to some dead Oxford professor who is staid, boorish, and dry as toast. Assume that you won’t connect to the story at all, but vow to grit your teeth and get through it.

8. Kick self hard for being so stupid about Q’s Legacy as it is written by Helene Hanff, an author whom you love and who can not seem to write a bad book. Through Q’s Legacy you will once again visit London with Helene as she goes back to see the sites she missed on her first visit and watches her first book, 84 Charring Cross Road be produced as the play she always dreamed of writing for the London stage.

9. Long to find another writer with the concise wit, bulldog tenacity, and upbeat charm of Helen Hanff.

10. Start over at number one again.

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The Giveaway

I have two copies of 84 Charring Cross Road to give away. Leave a comment to enter. Winners will be chosen at random on Monday evening November 9th, 2009. Good luck and Happy Reading!

Comments

  • I just read the Guernsey book and loved it. I think this book looks like a great read!

  • Barb:

    You got me at “Anthony Hopkins”…….I’m gonna go check it out.

  • DirtyKSmama:

    Sounds like she had humor and grit. I like that. Bring it on. (Please)

  • jamoody:

    Would love to read this!

  • I ADORED this movie!!!! would love to have the book

  • Kathy:

    I could use something different to read. Looking forward to it!

  • Kris:

    I loved the movie and would love to read the book!!!

  • jancd:

    I would be so excited to win one of these books. I loved the movie.

  • I’m signing up for the give a way! Even if I am a homeschooler, I love your psychotic blog. That’s probably because I’m a heathen…

  • Vickie:

    I didn’t mean to be anonymous. It’s me- Vickie!

  • P.j.:

    I am in. I think my mom read her books. Mom also had to drop out of college after one year to help support her family in the Depression, loved theatre, and shared her love of reading with me and my daughter.
    Thanks, p.j.

  • Pam:

    What a coincidence! I just read 84 Charing Cross last week. It has been on my must read list for a long time and I finally got around to getting it from the library. I would love to own a copy. And as Helene knew, used books are the best.

  • arlene:

    Oh, oh, please put my name in the drawing! I have taken a brief hiatus from reading to clear out the packrat suff (not done yet, but I need a good book!) AND November 9 is my birthday. I need to win! *trying not to whine)

  • Chef_Rach:

    Thank you for the great suggestions. I am always looking for good old books to read. I am going to rent the DVD to watch this weekend.

  • Martha in Kansas:

    1. Helene is really rockin’ those glasses! 2. My life IS a sore, empty, scabby little pit. How did you know? 3. I read.

  • Ooh, I love that book, and I don’t own it! I haven’t read ALL of her books, now I have more things to add to my to-read list.

  • What a great post! Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us. I will definitely look all of these up!

  • Sandy Sayers:

    I love to read anything with a British theme. Saw the newer TV movie, think it was maybe Angela Lansbury? Haven’t read the book yet. Maybe I’ll be the lucky one who wins yours!

  • I would love to read more epistolary books. Thanks Rachelle.

  • You have definitely peaked my interest. I would love to try her books.

  • WTMCassandra:

    I did see the movie on your previous recommendation, and I liked it very much. However, my library doesn’t have a copy of the book, so it sure would be nice to win it!

  • Southern Gal:

    I loved the Guernsey book you recommended. I’m sorry to say I’ve been living in a pit because I’d never heard of Helene Hanff. I’m going to check the library to see what they have.

  • SayrahK:

    I am actually planning a trip to London! I am into anything British right now.

  • Linda B:

    Hurray!! I needed a new author to read!

  • I’m a big fan of Helene Hanff!! And I have the video of 84….and when I went to England I spent a day on Charing Cross Road!! Just brousing through all the old bookshops there. And yes sadly enough the 84 is now an internet cafe!! But I stood in front of it and though warmly of the wonderful relationship these two people had through their love of books!

  • Louise:

    Thanks so much for all your reconmendations. Will I ever get the Starkadders out of my head??? HELP Love Louise

  • OK, the annoying thing about random number generators is that they totally negate the act of jumping up in the air, wildly flailing limbs while yelling “Pick me!!! Pick me!!!” which leaves me with a lot of pent-up energy that I may have to use to clean the bathroom. So thanks alot.

    Another heathen homeschooler who refuses to be driven away!

  • ooh – this sounds like a wonderful plan :)

  • I so love your book reviews. Sign me up for the giveaway!

  • Karen:

    I am ready for some literary bliss!

  • Oooh! More books to add to my winter-reading list!

  • Rebecca:

    You sure have some interesting picks. You make them all soung fascinating.

  • 84 Charing Cross Road is an exquisite movie. I love every scene in it and have to watch it occasionally just to feel the warmth of their friendship! I would so love to have this book!

  • Stephanie-Oh:

    Please sign me up for the drawing. I love to read and am off to the library to find one of Helene Hanff ‘s books. I do love your book reveiws.

  • I’m always looking for book recommendations, and I shall put this on my list to get from the library if my fantastic luck doesn’t assist me in winning a copy.

    Thanks!

  • Laura:

    I Would love to read any of these. I am way behind on wha i would like to read.

  • Carol:

    I never realized what was missing in my life and that I was an empty, scabby little pit because I had never read Helene Hanff, but I would love too!

  • I obviously need this….and am trying to climb out of the pit…8-)

  • Nice! I’m a fan of epostilary novels. From Daddy Long Legs to Griffin & Sabine to Possession.

  • Oh my gosh!! How have I missed out on Helen Hanff all these years!!? I must remedy that immediately!!!

    Jules

  • I saw the movie (loved it!) but haven’t read the book. Looks like there will be some Hanff, hazelnut cocoa, and a comfy afghan in my near future…..

  • lovey:

    I love to read – anything – and would love to win the books

  • jane:

    your book reviews are delicious. How could I have missed this book?

  • sherry:

    Looks like my kind of book. Well, really ANY book is my kind of book. Put my name in the hopper, please!

  • MichelleG:

    I might be willing to put down my Bible long enough to read this.

  • susan:

    Sounds like something I would like to read and I think I will try to find a copy of the movie somewhere.

  • Teresa:

    I am reading Teacher Man by Frank McCourt right now. Not a very light book but very good read.

  • Leslie:

    I read a lot…constantly really. But somehow I seem to have missed a lot of good authors out there. This is one of them. Even if I don’t win a copy (and I hope I do) then I will have to put this on on my library list.

    Thanks

  • Sounds like a great read. Throw my name in the hat, please and thank you!

  • Joanne:

    I enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potatato Peel Society….it’s nice to be introduced to new authors. I just finished Friday Night Knit Club which was also a good read.

  • JenniferB:

    Oh great! Now you’ve got me interested and if I don’t some of those books soon I’ll quite possibly swoon (or weep, or go to the library, check them out, read them, be happy, turn them in, and move on). On or the other, for sure!

  • Kellye:

    Oh I love your book reviews. In fact review is too common a word for your descriptions.

  • Fran:

    I loved 84 Charing Cross Road when I read it long ago in my mother’s set of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I saw the movie a long time ago, but I remember loving it, also. I would love to read it again! I hope you are holding up ok under the barrage you have received from the “lice” post. Thanks for another chance to lose a contest!

    Love you, girlfriend!

  • Vicki M.:

    I haven’t read anything by this author, but I will check my library and see if I can find her there….unless I win of course! Then I’ll wait until after I read this one to hit the library. Thanks.

  • Gayl:

    The book sounds wonderful! Thank you !

  • suzetta:

    I really need one of these books to distract me from picking at my scabby little life!

  • Always looking for new authors to check out. Would love to win this one!

  • Erin from Iowa:

    Wonderful review/history of the author! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I have seen the movie and loved it. I think I would quite like to read the book and as you put it…hear Anne Bancroft’s wrenching New York accent in your head.

  • Debra:

    Sounds very interesting – hope I win!

  • Scherrie:

    Sounds great. I adore Anthony Hopkins! Please enter me in this contest.

  • Anita:

    Please enter me in the contest. I read a library copy some years ago and loved it. This past summer I went to London and visited the book stores on Charing Cross Road (Foyles is to die for) which brought this book back to mind. Oh random number generator, have mercy on a poor soul who lives in such a small town that she has no book stores nor a library!

  • I enjoy your passion for nooks as I share it. Have even begun visiting my local library on a regular basis (rather than my Amazon Account) and reading some of your suggestions. Thanks!

  • Melissa:

    Pick me random generator, please pick me!

  • Meg:

    Oh, I am going to love this! I can already tell…..

  • I loved the movie over and over and over – but have never read the book. Put my name in the pot, please.
    ~Mad(elyn) in Alabama

  • I adored the movie, but have never read the book and I LOVE to read.

  • Marilyn:

    I can’t believe that I have missed this author. Put my name in for a win!

  • Kathy:

    I love to read and the book sounds great. Please enter me in the contest.

  • Marue:

    I haven’t read anything by her yet. I would love to start.

  • I’m always up for trying a new author…count me in.

  • Debra:

    Oh!!!! I hope I win!! If I don’t, I’m off to purchase all 4 of the books you’ve suggested! Thanks! :-)

  • Oh please, gods of Random Picker Thingy, pick me! pick me! I promise not the bend the pages and to love them and cherish them and all sorts of other good things!!!

  • Anoria:

    Helene Hanff sounds like a fascinating person and her books almost as much so. Count me in for the drawing please :)

  • Sarah in NM:

    Ooh, this sounds fun! Also much needed as my library does not carry any Hanff. I’ve been looking!

  • Linda Joan:

    Hello Dear Rechelle, Thanks for the “heads up”! Whether I win the giveaway or not, I’m on a mission to read Helene Hanff!

  • Mary:

    Hanff comes from an intersesting time period. I would enjoy a chance to read her.

  • Katherine Myers:

    I just lost my Britsh penpal of over 50 years, so thanks for reminding me of this wonderful book.

  • AngAk:

    I have not read the book or watched the movie—where have I been!! I must go get the movie soon. Our bookclub is reading the Guernsey book. 84 Charring Cross might be another good pick with a movie night.

  • Pam P:

    long time lurker, first time commenter…
    I just wanted you to know that you picked my absolute favorite movie of all time! 84 Charring Cross Road is really my favorite movie and when people ask me to name my favorite movie, I make them sit down and immediately watch this!

    Rauzberries, Rauzberries, Rauzberries!

    And this ersatz book! I used ersatz in a sentence every day for a week after seeing this movie for the first time!

    Thanks Rechelle!

  • Just finished reading 84 Charring Cross Road because of your post. Oh how very lovely! I do like epistolary books and movies.

    Have you seen The Lake House? It’s a few years old, but my favorite movie for all that.