Comfortably Numb

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Book review: 84, Charing Cross by Helene Hanff

84, Charing Cross by Helene Hanff. Virago Modern Classics Books.

This reproduction of a most delightful correspondence between American  writer Helene Hanff who has a pronounced predilection for ye olde English books, and the seemingly stiff and starchy `FPD` Frank P Deol,  over at the antiquarian bookshop Marks and Co at 84, Charing Cross, London, has long been a sparkling  gem in the pantheon of letters compiled into books, alongside other epistolary classics like Jane Austen`s Persuasion, Bram Stoker`s Dracula, Jean Webster`s Daddy Long-legs, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows`  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and others.

Sometime in the fall of 1949,  Marks and Co in London receive a letter from Hanff asking if they had in stock anything on her wishlist. The store manager, the man who signs off as FPD, is assigned the task of replying to Hanff,  and thus begins a 20-year-old correspondence where the witty writer quickly demolishes the British stiff and formal upper lip of the bookseller and soon becomes a good friend to virtually everyone in  the bookshop. And so,  they send her Leigh Hunt, Pepys , Hazlitt, Chaucer, Walter Savage Landor, Virginia Woolf,  John Donne and other such precious  titles, extend credit generously even though unasked, and in turn, Hanff sends them packets of meat, eggs and after getting to know FPD`s family, nylons for the Doel ladies. It is the  time of post- war rationing, and her friends across the pond are most grateful for these generous acts.

A deep relationship

Unsurprisingly, it is Hanff`s great desire to visit England, and soon it becomes the Doel  family`s great desire to host her. However, circumstances play spoiler and meanwhile, the correspondence continues, spanning about two decades, and covering a mix of great books as well as a way of life as lived in Britain and America in the 50s and 60s.

British playwright Marc Connelly speaks for every reader of the story when he says that 84, Charing Cross is `tender and funny and incandescent and beautiful and makes the reader rejoice.`

I first read this in my grandmother`s stack of Reader`s Digest which had serialised the story. Some decades later, the magic endures.

For those who read 84, Charing Cross and are not ready to stop thinking of the Hanff -Marks and Co affaire, Virago Modern Classics has an edition that contains both the Charing Cross story as well as what happens next, in a tale titled The Duchess of Bloomsbury.

Oh, and let me break your heart. The bookshop is now a McDonalds restaurant.


84 Charing Crossbook reviewbooksbooksellersepistolary classicHelene Hanffletters from the US to the UKpost-War storyVirago Modern Classics

Sheila Kumar • March 16, 2022

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