” A few years ago I couldn’t write anything or sell anything, I’d passed the age where you know all the returns are in, I’d had my chance and done my best and failed. And how I was to know the miracle waiting to happen around the corner in late middle age? ” (58)
For twenty years, between 1949 and 1969, Helene Hanff corresponded with Frank Doel, a London bookseller at Marks & Co; but it was not until 1971 that her fervent wish of visiting England came true. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the chronicle of her long delayed visit to London, where she was met by late Doel’s wife, Nora and her daughter Sheila. Written in the diary form, this memoir is still full of exuberance and wit, although less all the literary references in her previous book.
The publication of 84 Charing Cross Road made it possible for her to make the trip to London, as the publisher, paying for the expenses, wanted her there to help publicize the book. Although the book didn’t make her rich, it got her hundreds of letters and phone calls from people she never knew existed. The flummoxed first-time traveler soon found herself to be a celebrity with a particular connection to London, and this account of her time in the city was colored and enlivened by that experience.
All my life I’ve wanted to see London. I used to go to English movies just to look at streets with houses like those. Staring at the screen in a theatre, I wanted to walk down those streets so badly it gnawed at me like hunger. . . . I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die. (21)
Indeed, owing to her versatility and flexibility, she made friends everywhere she went. Among her tour guides to literary and historical landmarks were comedienne, painter, playwright, an Eton alumni, a professor and an English colonel. The book is full of travel anecdotes that are both humorous and witty. She was amazed to be called chic while a bohemian mess back home. She ended up instructing a bartender to make martinis her way. She pitched a fit at Oxford when her friends wouldn’t take her where she wanted to go and insist on taking her shopping—the last thing she wanted since she was on a tight budget and that all price tags read the same message “one less day in London.”
This book is a gem in the sense that reading has inspired one on a pilgrimage. It’s abound with trenchant comments comparing American and British culture.
137 pp. Avon Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]