84 Charing Cross Road & The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene Hanff

My sister has this magical ability to get people to do things for her.  It is amazing.  Everyone in my family does stuff for her even when we have just said, “No!  Lazy!  Do it yourself!  My God you are so lazy!”  Like, we’ll both be at my parents’ house, and I’ll be curled up comfortably on the couch reading something, and she’ll be all, “Why are you reading that?  It looks stupid.  What’s it about?  Sounds stupid.  You should be reading something with quality like Whatever Happened to Janie.  Will you get me a bowl of ice cream?  Please?  I really want some ice cream.  Please?” AND I WILL.  She has a power that other people don’t have.

She is on this spree of reading Caroline B. Cooney books right now.  The last few times we’ve gone to my parents’ house, she has used her powers to get everyone in the house helping her look for all the books in the Face on the Milk Carton series.  My parents have a lot of books, and my sister has taken this opportunity to complain about as many of them as possible. It’s been all, “Why do you have seven copies of The Trumpet of the Swan?  Look!  Here is another copy of The Castle in the Attic!  Why do you own Izzy Willy Nilly when it’s awful?  How can you possibly have TWO COPIES of The Clan of the Cave Bear and not one single copy of Whatever Happened to Janie!  I should be reading Kafka!”

In the midst of all this, I discovered that my parents own (as well as thousands of copies of the Narnia books, a displeasingly high number of Hemingway books (one), loads of Georgette Heyer, E.B. White’s oeuvre, though apparently not the middle two books in the riveting Janie series) Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.  Hooray for my parents and their house with its gravitational pull on books!

84 Charing Cross Road is a book of letters between Helene Hanff, an American writer, and a bookshop on Charing Cross Road that supplied her book addiction.  Over the years, she became very friendly with the chief purchaser, Frank Doel, his family, and the staff at the little bookshop, sending them sweets and eggs and nylons while Britain was still on rations.  It’s terribly sweet, how everyone writes to each other (bother email!  why don’t we write letters anymore!).  Anyway, in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene comes to London herself, too late to see the bookshop in action, but she writes about all the things and people she does see (finally!  finally!).

I love these books.  I imagine the bookshop to be exactly like Henry Pordes, my favorite of the Charing Cross bookshops.  I spent absolutely hours there the first time I was in London – there’s a massive collection of literary biographies and letters by the front window, which I love, and I love the narrow staircase down to Litrature and History (I got a book about the scandalous and beautiful Lady Colin Campbell (doesn’t she look like she was wicked fun!) there, and idiotically left it in England.

If I cried while reading this book (and I don’t say that I did!), it is because I miss London.  I miss London!  Why am I not in London?  Helene gets to do everything, and I didn’t enjoy Duchess as much as I should have, because I was green with envy and cross when Helene didn’t go to the places I want to go.  However:

Ena was shocked that I hadn’t been to a single gallery [insane!  INSANE.] and firmly dragged me to the National Portrait Gallery after lunch – where I amazed myself by going clean out of my mind meeting old friends face-to-face.  Charles II looks exactly the dirty old man he was, Mary of Scotland looks exactly the witch-on-a-broomstick she was, Elizabeth looks marvelous, the painter caught everything – the bright, sharp eyes and strong nose, the translucent skin and delicate hands, the glittering, cold isolation.  Wish I knew why portraits of Mary and Elizabeth always look real and alive, and portraits of Shakespeare, painted in the same era and the same fashion, always look stylized and remote.

I stared at every face so long we never got out of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  We’re going back next week for the eighteenth and nineteenth, I am now determined to see everybody.

Well.  Quite rightly.  Oh how I miss London.  I miss the lovely National Portrait Gallery, that amazing, enormous picture of Lady Colin Campbell, and the Brownings in their opposite-side frames, and John Donne looking mysterious and sexy; Branwell Bronte painted out, and Emma Hamilton all coy and pretty.  I miss how present the past is, in England.  Helene Hanff always has this effect on me, because she appreciates it so much herself.  She writes to one of the girls at the bookshop:

Please write and tell me about London. I live for the day when I step off the boat-train and feel its dirty sidewalks under my feet.  I want to walk up Berkeley Square and down Wimpole Street and stand in St. Paul’s where John Donne preached and sit on the step Elizabeth sat on when she refused to enter the Tower, and like that.  A newspaper man I know, who was stationed in London during the war, says tourists go to England with preconceived notions, so they always find exactly what they go looking for.  I told him I’d go looking for the England of English literature, and he said:

“Then it’s there.”

Okay, I confess.  I cried when I read that.  I miss my lovely London.  Reading this book, it seemed perfectly viable to just drop everything, abandon my lease, and go live in London with my friend Marie until she or the visa people kicked me out.  I would come back destitute, but first I would have been there again, eating picnics on the South Bank and seeing magnificent masterpieces of art for free.