84, Charing Cross Road

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Editor: David A. Galens
Date: 2003
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 17. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 19
Content Level: (Level 4)

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84, Charing Cross Road




84, Charing Cross Road, published in 1970, is constructed from a collection of correspondence between the author and a London bookseller, Frank Doel. The relationship began as Hanff delved into the work of a professor at Cambridge University. Professor "Q," as he is called, became the catalyst for Hanff's letter writing. Her admiration for the professor fueled her pursuit of classic literature, resulting in the inquiries comprising this work. 84, Charing Cross Road spans a twenty-year period, incidentally chronicling events abroad, such as Winston Churchill's 1951 election in London and the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination in 1960.

This story thematically touches on the ideas of lack and sufficiency, whether it be Helene's bibliomania (obsession for books) or a black-market trade of eggs for a pair of pantyhose in London. It is a story of beginnings and endings as represented by each letter, from date to signature. The power of language figures prominently, presenting the challenge of inference in the white space of the text as Helene waits breathlessly for her next letter to arrive. Finally, it is a story of appearances for exactly the same reason: the only information the reader has is based on a series of letters, hardly the means by which one can accurately infer much about the characters. Despite what seem to be shortcomings, the appeal of this mysterious plot is what serves to entice and delight the reader's imagination.

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Helene Hanff was born April 15, 1916, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although she attended Temple University for one year, she did not pursue a degree. Critics attribute the bulk of her literary background to her penchant for books. In her work entitled Q's Legacy, she speaks of the professor whose reading recommendations became the foundation for her literary education. A self-taught classicist, Hanff was a screenwriter and author. She was first employed as a manuscript reader for Paramount Pictures, and then accepted a position as a television scriptwriter for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and National Broadcasting Company (NBC).

The author's work is largely comprised of publications for children and young adults, constituting a collection of historical works for a young audience. However, she is perhaps most recognized for her work addressing adult audiences. 84, Charing Cross Road is her greatest achievement in this regard, in terms of the notoriety she received from it. Published in 1970, the success of the work made subsequent adaptations for film and stage possible. 84, Charing Cross Road chronicles twenty years of Hanff's life as a writer through her correspondence with the employees at a London-based antiquarian bookstore, Marks & Co.

Hanff's experience as a playwright is attributable to professional activity with the Theater Guild. She is the author of thirty scripts for television's Hallmark Hall of Fame and Matinee Theater, and contributed to eight United States Army training films. Other television work includes a writing stint with the program The Adventures of Ellery Queen. Her awards include a CBS grant-in-aid for work on historic scripts for television. She has also contributed to magazines such as Harper's, The New Yorker, and Reader's Digest.

Other career highlights include her monthly "Women's Hour" broadcasts over BBC radio, as recalled in Letter from New York, her 1992 book which contains excerpts from the program. Hanff's contribution to the radio show characterizes her love for New York, as shared in upbeat anecdotes and other random observations of her community. After a long and fruitful career, Hanff died of pneumonia April 9, 1997, in New York City.


Correspondence, October 5, 1949 to November 1, 1950

Helene Hanff is responding to an advertisement for a bookseller specializing in out-of-print books. Knowing nothing of Marks & Co. in London, she encloses a list of "her most pressing problems": copies of secondhand books she cannot find, and a request that they must be clean copies costing no more than $5.00. The books arrive safely, and with the help of a neighbor in Helene's New York apartment building, Helene is able to determine the cost in dollars per British pound.

"Kindly inform the Church of England they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written," says Helene in a letter to Marks & Co. upon receipt of a Bible, complaining that the Church of England has tinkered with the Vulgate Latin. To justify her disappointment, she recites her own family tree, recalling a Catholic sister-in-law, Presbyterian cousins, and others in her family and their religious persuasions. She encloses four dollar bills, despite the bookseller's request to be "safe," in addition to her request for an additional item.

In another instance, Helene communicates her great enthusiasm for a Roman battle she happens on in a book she received from the store. She shares her delight in secondhand books, for precisely the reason that they have a tendency to fall open to what for her are often beloved passages. Taking comfort in a friendly copy of one of Hazlitt's books, she notes delightfully, "[Hazlitt's book] opened to 'I hate to read new books!"'

In the same letter, Helene writes that she has learned in a communication from a Marks & Co. employee that the occupants of the shop have been rationed to small amounts of meat and eggs, as have Londoners in general, to help with the war effort. Out of pity, Helene decides to send the booksellers at Charing Cross a six-pound ham. Later Frank Doel responds to Helene's kindness, expressing his gratitude and calling the food parcel something "we either never see or can only be had through the black market."

In March, Helene addresses Frank with complaints that he is slow to fill her book requests. She expresses her disappointment in not having received several books for Lent, as well as the fact that she is forced to scribble in the margins of books thereby risking her library card in the process.Page 3  |  Top of Article Exasperated, she adds, "I have made arrangements with the Easter bunny to bring you an Egg, he will get over there and find you have died of Inertia."

Cecily, another store employee, cannot help her curiosity, disclosing to Helene that she has been "dying to slip in a little note" with Helene's bills from the bookseller. Although Frank is not stuffy, Cecily admits that he looks upon Helene as "his private correspondent." She requests a snapshot of Helene and speculates as to her appearance. Cecily imagines her to be "young and very sophisticated," while others err on the side of "studious-looking." Helene's description of herself is anything but flattering. She is admittedly "so unstudious," having not attended college, and claims to favor a "Broadway panhandler" in appearance.

Anticipating future travel, Helene asks Cecily to tell her about London. Sharing what she herself knows about London, she adds that a newspaperman confided in her that tourists go to London with preconceived notions. "I told him I'd go looking for the England of English literature, and he said: 'Then it's there."'

Correspondence, February 2, 1951 to December 17, 1952

Helene is touched by the book of Elizabethan poems with pages edged in gold, sent from all at Marks & Co., in addition to letters sent from employees Megan Wells, Bill Humphries, and Frank Doel in a show of appreciation for her generosity. She downplays the food parcel she sent on Easter with "greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve" in the postwar 1950s.

Another moment reveals an exasperated Helene who cannot believe her beloved bookseller would send her a book of excerpts from Pepys Diary rather than the entire work, telling Frank "I could just spit." Frank responds apologetically, with much greater enthusiasm than he has demonstrated in the past. He assures Helene that there will be better times in the future for London, in anticipation of Winston Churchill's re-election. "You dizzy me," says Helene out of guilt for her sudden outburst over Pepys Diary.

In a letter to Maxie, aka Maxine, Helene requests that her friend purchase four pairs of nylons for the girls working at the bookseller and also for Frank's wife, after receiving a letter from Nora

Helene Hanff Helene Hanff

Doel. In her correspondence, Nora had shared the value of trading a tin of dried eggs for the stockings. Helene tells Maxie that, despite her desire to visit England and her beloved bookseller, she feels more comfortable writing "the most outrageous letters from a safe 3,000 miles away."

Helene also responds to Nora and Frank's acquisition of their first car, an extremely difficult commodity to come by new or, in this case, used. She shares her hardships with Frank, those of purging overflowing bookshelves and the cost of having her teeth capped. In her last letter in 1952, she admits to the uneven exchange of holiday gifts. "You'll eat yours up in a week…. I'll have mine till the day I die." Helene thrills in the idea that her scribblings in pale pencil will be discovered by "some book lover yet unborn."

Correspondence, May 3, 1953 to May 8, 1960

In 1953 Cecily tells Helene she should forget the care packages and save for a trip to London in 1955. In 1955, in a letter to Frank, Helene inquires whether Cecily is still in Iraq. "Do you mean to sit there and tell me you've been publishing these mammoth catalogues all these years and this is the first time you ever bothered to send me one?"Page 4  |  Top of Article exclaims Helene in the same letter. She sends the letter along with a prayer request for the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the World Series.

"Will you tell Megan Wells she is out of her cotton picking mind," says Helene of a Marks & Co. employee's choice to move to South Africa. Changes are also afoot for the writer, whose eviction notice from her New York brownstone has pushed her to acquire "a real apartment with real furniture" and "wall-to-wall carpeting," although it means postponing her anticipated trip to London. "All this and the Dodgers disintegrating before my very eyes," she says of the entire affair.

Frank comforts Helene after hearing her television shows have moved to Hollywood. Five months later, Helene shares that she has won a $5,000 grant from CBS to write American history dramatizations. She kids with Frank, telling him that her first script will involve New York under seven years of British occupation, "and I marvel at how I rise above it to address you in friendly and forgiving fashion, your behavior over here from 1776 to 1783 was simply filthy."

Correspondence, "Sunday Night and a hell of a way to start 1960" to October 1969

Helene is struck enough by a giant Modern Library book given to her as a Christmas gift to devote a considerable amount of time corresponding with Frank about the work on New Year's Day. She considers the pairing of the works of John Donne and William Blake into one volume an absurdity. In the end, says Helene, "I'm being driven clear up the wall, Frankie, you have got to help me."

With only a $1,500 book advance for the next six months, Helene must watch her finances. "So I can't buy any books" she says, opting to visit the Society Library for a copy of Memoirs of the Duke de Saint-Simon, only to find herself short on time to finish it. When she suggests Frank buy it to hold on reserve until a later date, Frank insists on sending six volumes to her without payment. "Your credit will always be good at Marks & Co.," he tells Helene.

"Enclosed-please-God-please-find a $10 bill," says Helene to Frank, who cannot bear to have Memoirs without paying something toward it. In a brief story about a dinner meeting with her editor from Harper's, Helene talks about her dramatization of Walter Savage Landor's Aesop and Rhodope for Hallmark. Two hours before the program airs, she is dismayed to find a photo of a sculpture in the New York Times. The caption read "Rhodope, the most famous prostitute in Greece"—a fact she never knew while writing the show for the family program. Her editor, reveals Helene, was impatient rather than sympathetic. "You see how it is, Frankie," writes Helene, "you're the only soul alive who understands me."

On January 8, 1969, Helene is informed of Frank's death. He was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital for a ruptured appendix and died a week later. A letter from Nora followed some twenty-one days afterward. His wife pays him a glowing tribute, and admits her now growing awareness of his talents as letters and acknowledgements continue to reach her. The only other admission Nora makes is that she has always been envious of Helene's writing ability and of Helene and Frank's relationship.

When Maxine says she is going to London and asks Helene if she would like to go, Helene shares that she almost wept when asked if she would consider going, provided she had the fare. She decides that maybe it is best she did not go after having dreamt about it for so many years. Speaking to the mysteries of the England of English literature, she says, "maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Looking around the rug one thing's for sure: it's here." The work ends with the epilogue, a letter from one of Frank's daughters giving Helene permission to publish her letters with Marks & Co. in book form.


Frank Doel

A consummate salesperson, Frank Doel is knowledgeable to a fault on the vast array of books available at Marks & Co. and elsewhere, demonstrating a keen awareness of possible works of interest to Helene and of their availability and care. Upon his death, his wife Nora speaks of many in the book trade who felt Frank was knowledgeable and "imparted his knowledge with kindness to all and sundry."

Mentioned in the beginning only as "FPD," the efficient, polite reserve of Frank Doel softens over years of correspondence with Helene. In a later, decidedly more personal letter, Frank addressesPage 5  |  Top of Article the letter "Dear Helene," pointing out in parentheses no less, that he does not care about the files anymore and goes on to share freely with Helene on a deeper level."

His importance in the novel in relation to Helene cannot be under-emphasized. Frank undisputedly shares Helene's love of books and it is in this obvious reverence for the medium as well as his job as a bookseller that he quickly becomes Helene's champion. Demonstrating patience, kindness and understanding only draws Helene out more and in this way she forms a dependence on Frank she may not so easily find in relations with others.

Nora Doel

Loving, devoted, supportive wife and mother, Nora Doel corresponds with Helene in light of the kindness bestowed upon Nora's husband Frank and those employed by Marks & Co. She is somewhat timid in her reserve, writing Helene only after having found the perfect excuse to do so: providing the name and address of a woman Helene wishes to contact. Nora also shares the difficulties both herself, and by extension, the members of Helene's extended family at Marks & Co., are encountering in obtaining basic goods. When Nora expresses the value of a tin of eggs in procuring a pair of women's hose, or the rare sight of meat at the London market, for example, Helene sees and responds to not only the needs of Nora for such items but to those of the bookstore. Decidedly less articulate than Frank or Helene, her curiosity about her husband's female customer becomes obvious by the end of the story. She admits that she was very jealous of Helene "as Frank enjoyed [Helene's] letters and they or some were so like his sense of humor." Nora also acknowledges similar feelings regarding Helene's writing ability.

It is with equal candor that Nora shares the source of her insecurities with her husband's correspondant. She describes her husband and herself as a pair of extreme opposites: "he so kind and gentle and me with my Irish background always fighting for my rights." In this manner Nora functions in the play to round out Frank as a character on a more personal level. She shares intimate details about her husband, his family, and home life as well as his character quirks. Through Nora it is revealed that Frank is the father of three daughters, a "ready made" daughter from his first relationship and two from his union with Nora. She also provides snapshots of Frank to Helene, sharing her husband's need to put a good foot forward with Helene as expressed by his dissatisfaction for the photos. "Frank says none of them do him justice, he is much better looking," says Nora of the pictures.

Cecily Farr

The first Marks & Co. employee outside of Frank Doel to attempt to correspond with Helene, daring Cecily Farr does so without what she feels is the necessary permission, and in a much more intimate and personal way than Frank. Cecily's letters reflect her young, vibrant enthusiasm; in anticipating Helene's curiosity she mirrors her own. She shares with Helene intimate details of a personal life yet to be disclosed by Frank, preempting her description with "if you're curious about Frank," then providing information about his marital status and his looks. Of her own curiosity, Cecily admits, "I've been dying to slip in a little note and [Frank] might not think it quite proper of me." A military wife, Cecily remains a correspondent of Helene's until Cecily joins her husband on a military base in Iraq.

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  • 84, Charing Cross Road was adapted as a fulllength film, directed by David Hugh Jones and starring Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins, and Judi Dench for Columbia Tri-Star in 1987. It is available from Columbia Tri-Star on DVD and VHS.

Helene Hanff

Eccentric and reclusive Helene Hanff, known as h.h. by her closest friends, is a bibliomaniac (a person with a preoccupation for acquiring and owning books) and looks to Marks & Co. to satisfy her habit. Professor Quiller-Couch, or "Q," is responsible for Helene's obsession. When describing herself to Cecily, Helene remarks that she is "so unstudious she never went to college," and claims she is "about as smart-looking as a Broadway panhandler."

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In expressing her desire for certain reading materials, she is often childish in her demands though she feigns humor or claims to press the bookseller in jest, despite the obvious effects such demands may have on Frank. "Poor Frank, I give him such a hard time, I'm always bawling him out for something," says Helene. Claiming to be "only teasing," she still knows Frank will take her seriously. She further shares, "I keep trying to puncture that proper British reserve, if he gets ulcers I did it." Her concern is apparent by the nature of her comment, one she apparently wishes will reach the ears of Frank, the target of her sarcasm.

Helene's behavior towards Frank, as expressed in her communications, is not a function of her own self-absorption, but rather her obsessive need to surround herself with books. Books are a means of self-expression, and their appearance and contents also serve to soothe her. Because they are such an entrenched part of her life, the books seem to take on lives of their own, as personified in the text of her letters. When a book by M. De Tocqueville arrives, Helene refers to the author's words and work in a letter to Frank, stating, "he sits around looking smug because everything he said is true," as regards her feelings of politics in America.

As demanding as Helene may be, she is also quite generous and kind, and receptive to the warmth of strangers as expressed in her correspondence to others involved directly with Marks & Co. She openly shares with Cecily her less-than-glamorous lifestyle in New York, devoid of the romantic notions Cecily offers. In another moment, a letter from Nora inspires a perceptive Helene to send several pairs of nylons not only to Frank's wife, but to the other women at the shop, in response to the hardships rationing presents Nora and the others. In the same letter, the reader discovers via Nora's letter that Helene has inquired after the address of a woman in an effort to express her thanks for a tablecloth.

The author has her eccentricities, however, and they tend to come out particularly in her love of classic books. Helene fancies herself to be a Miniver Cheevy, a character in a poem who distrusts anything modern in favor of more chivalrous moments in history, when knights defended castles and princes married princesses. Her struggle with change comes out in some particularly telling moments, when she expresses angst over one work or another's technical merits. She devotes an entire letter to Frank, for example, on the problem inherent in combining the works of John Donne and William Blake into one text, a discovery with nightmarish possibilities in her eyes. These and other impressions give the text its thematic underpinning.

Bill Humphries

An associate at Marks & Co., Bill Humphries is mentioned throughout the text and actually corresponds with Helene from time to time in a show of appreciation for her generosity.


Maxine, or Maxie as she is addressed in letters to her friend, is Helene's close friend and confidant. By the nature of their correspondence, it is assumed that the reader is able to get a clearer glimpse of Helene's true nature. It is with Maxine that Helene shares her insecurities concerning a trip to London. It is also Maxine who becomes Helene's eyes and ears on a trip to see the writer's friends at Charing Cross road. The main function of the character is to illuminate a side of Helene not apparent in her communications with others, thus giving such communications the added dimension needed to put them into a richer context.


Language and Meaning

The premise of the work is that through select letters the author is able to construct the story of the deep relationship forged between herself and the bookseller she has come to know on both a professional and personal level. Therefore, the idea of communication as a deep personal expression is a key factor in discovering the story behind the correspondence. There is a meaning behind the language that gives the story its emotive power.

Nora, for example, admits she is a terrible writer, and by her admission has realized some meaning is lost in the text of her letters. In contrast, language and meaning forge the bond between Frank and Helene. It is the glue keeping their relationship together, so powerful that Helene is afraid to actually meet Frank and others in person for fear of losing the credibility and power she has forged in writing. By way of literary illusion as well as writing ability, Helene connects with Frank in a way others, like Nora, may not.

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In a letter to Frank, Helene also demonstrates the significance words carry. In looking for an apartment she discovers what she considers to be distasteful violations of the English language. "Rents do not make sense," she states, "and prices do not sit around being reasonable." She concludes that she goes through life "watching the English language being raped before me face." In this instance and others, she also uses a literary reference to Edward Arlington Robinson to express her feelings of dismay.

Beginning and Ending

The work is based on a series of letters, and therefore, on beginnings and endings. The events of the story are recalled in relational time, either in response letters preceding letters, or as historical documents by date. The beginnings and endings are made implicit in specific life events or transitions, marked by career, personal relationship, environment, or history.

For example, when Cecily instructs Helene to stop sending care packages because "everything is now off rations and even nylons are available in all the better shops," it is safe to assume that London has made a transition for the better. Likewise when Frank reports to Helene he has lost touch with Cecily, the reader knows it marks the end of any subsequent communication between Cecily and Helene.

On a more tragic note, the death of Frank marks the end of many things for Helene—including a long friendship and her plans to visit England—and the beginning of others. Helene has managed to put together a book of correspondence for publication, and in so doing has sparked a relationship with one of Frank's daughters.

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  • The advent of the computer age caused many to question the efficacy of books. Trace the advent of computers in America and their impact on popular opinion regarding the future of books. How does Helene Hanff's correspondence reflect such trends?
  • In Nora Doel's correspondence (and similar letters from other characters), she shares the impact of rationing on London in the 1950s, thankful for Helene's care parcels. Research and write an essay about the economic climate of London in the 1950s as compared with that of the United States. Considering the quality of life in London during this time, how profound of an impact do you believe Helene's gifts had on Nora and others associated with Marks & Co.?
  • In one of Helene's letters she includes an excerpt from Edward Arlington Robinson's poem "Miniver Cheevy" to express her feelings about change. Read the entire poem in consideration of Helene's views. Providing specific textual evidence for your assertions, make a case for Helene's choice of poetry she employs to describe herself.
  • Although Helene does not visit London by the story's end, she does eventually take a trip to Marks & Co. By creating a series of letters, writing them as if they were shared between Maxine (Helene's friend in New York) and Helene, write a fictitious account of the trip. Keep in mind Helene's obsession for the England of English literature. What sorts of places would she visit during her stay? With whom would Helene stay?

Lack and Sufficiency

Through communication of their needs and wants, the characters explore the idea of lack verses sufficiency. Often times the communication is subtle, a hint or request rather than a demand for something, or may simply be the author's personal expression of a sense of deprivation. Such expressions set the tone for the work in terms of bothPage 8  |  Top of Article history and characterization. As characters make their needs and wants known, the reader is able to make value judgments on the personalities represented in the work.

When Helene does not get a response to her letter of inquiry, or does not receive a particular book she has requested, her responses are impetuous or fueled by sudden energy, action, or emotion, suggesting impulsiveness, impatience, or thought-lessness of character. Telling Frank it will be a long, cold winter, she suddenly exclaims, "and I need reading matter, now don't start sitting around, go find me some books."

Other expressions of lack and sufficiency serve as historical records of postwar London. After sending care parcels of meat and dried egg, for example, Helene is informed by Nora that a bit of dried egg is valuable in an exchange for pantyhose. In consequence, Helene responds to Nora's need for female accessories by supplying not only Nora, but three other women in the shop, with nylon hose.

Appearances and Reality

Letter writing is based somewhat on artifice; it is an expression of self on paper, a persona that leaves much white space to imagine the person behind the words, their appearance, their personality, and their life. The characters of the novel are able to summon imagination, to express themselves with reserve or candor, leaving very strong, lasting impressions of people they would fancy themselves to be in a personal encounter.

Cecily first contacts Helene because her curiosity about the writer—how she looks and so forth— has peaked her interest to the degree that any consequence due to such contact is mitigated by a sheer need to satisfy her imagination. When Nora writes Helene, she encloses carefully selected photos of her husband, but is quick to point out Frank's displeasure with the way he appears in them. In another instance, when Helene complains of neglect from Frank and others at the bookseller, she is often surprised with news of a death or illness, and dismisses her notions that the store was intentionally choosing to overlook her.

Finally, it is Helene's anticipated trip to London that figures prominently in the work. She shares in several instances that she prefers her writing persona, believing that what looks good on paper would not become reality in a personal encounter with her friends at the bookseller. Admitting the comfort she finds in her long distance relationship, she tells Maxine all may be compromised otherwise. For Helene, writing letters from 3,000 miles away is safe. Imagining a trip to the bookseller, she adds, "I'll probably walk in there one day and walk right out again without telling them who I am."



The central character in the work, Helene, lacks traditional heroic qualities, particularly courage and personal fortitude. Although she provides the employees at Marks & Co. with some wonderful gifts, such presents do come with a bit of a price, particularly for Frank. When Helene is slow to receive a book, she often becomes demanding and temperamental with him. Although she admits to Cecily she is joking with Frank, she also owns up to the idea that he may take her seriously regardless of her intentions, and her joking becomes part of such demands by design. She also embraces her eccentricities, sharing she wears moth-eaten sweaters and wool slacks in reaction to her ill-heated "hovel" of an apartment. Most apparent, however, is her view of the world, which seems to be shaped in large part by the books in which she is interested. Helene favors classic works over contemporary ones, a tendency in sync with her view of the world. At one point, for example, she concurs with a poet in reaction to her editor, who becomes agitated with her interest in old English books. In response, she recites a passage from Edward Arlington Robinson's Miniver Cheevy, identifying with another antihero who shuns modernity in favor of "the days of old."


The text unfolds in a series of letters acting as a record of the events occurring in the lives of both Helene and those characters related to Marks & Co. The action unfolds chronologically by individually dated letter rather than by event. For example, when Helene complains of neglect to Frank, it is only in his response to her letter that she discovers Nora has been sick and in need of Frank's attention. The letters also serve somewhat as a twenty-year historical chronicle, from 1949 to 1969. As a result, the reader becomes privy to such information as the impact of rations on postwar London, the re-electionPage 9  |  Top of Article of Winston Churchill in 1951, the Brooklyn Dodger's bid for the 1955 World Series, and the 1960 U.S. presidential campaign.


The recurring motif (image or theme) that occurs throughout the text is Helene's repeated request for used books. Although she forges deep bonds with those working at Marks & Co., Helene's overriding desire is to find a particular published work; all of her correspondence, apart from some personal bits of information here and there, is related to this endeavor. This device is used to demonstrate the strong relationship Helene has formed with books, and by extension, the written word. Her need for books brings her closer to the employees of Marks & Co. Books also form the basis for both work and recreation for Helene. The book motif is also exemplified in the foundation of the story: a collection of letters Helene has been given permission to put in book form.


Churchill's Conservative Government

In 1951 Winston Churchill succeeded Clement Attlee as prime minister, signaling an end to the Labor government and a victory for the Conservatives. The new leader immediately asserted England's need to economize on foreign spending, including restrictions on food and British tourism. In Hanff's work, for example, the value of receiving a food parcel of meat from Helene was enormous, with the imposed meat ration set at less than twenty cents per person per week. At the same time, both the Labor government and the Conservative government pushed for increased arms spending in the billions, in reaction to both the Korean campaign and a perceived threat of communism.

Two international disputes figured prominently in British politics. The first was with Iran, when the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was expelled from Iran in 1951, resulting in a blatant breach of contract. The company owned the largest oil refinery in the world on the Persian Gulf, with the British government holding a controlling interest. This conflict between nations explains character Cecily's move to the Persian Gulf to be with her husband, a member of the military stationed there. Another conflict arose with Egypt over its attempts to force the country out of the Suez Canal zone and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. With forty-four percent ownership of the canal's French operating company, the British refused to budge, believing the region would be of great strategic import in a conflict with the Soviets.

Churchill had many political objectives in 1951, including the denationalization of the steel industry in response to an overwhelming public outcry. The government was also active in the affairs of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an anti-communist military alliance formed by eleven Western nations, including the United States.

Baseball in America

When Helene asks Frank to root for the Brooklyn Dodgers, she is responding to a banner year for the team in 1955, when that October they earned baseball's highest honor by winning the World Series, while also defeating their rivals, the New York Yankees. The Dodgers had previously won the National League pennant seven times without going on to win the Series; hence the Brooklyn adage, "wait till next year." The 1955 Series went the full seven games before the Brooklyn victory became a reality.

During 1955 major league baseball experienced an overall increase in attendance of 688,265 people. With respect to the American League, Milwaukee was the clear leader in attendance, attracting a crowd of 2,005,836 fans in 1955. American League highlights for 1955 included outstanding performances by Mickey Mantle, hitting thirty-seven homeruns for the year, and Al Kaline, the Detroit Tiger outfielder, who at twenty years of age become the youngest player ever to win a batting championship, with a .340 average that year.

The Democratic Comeback

"I belong to a Democratic club," says Helene, "[I] read a couple of newspaper stories about the presidential hopefuls—Stevenson, Humphrey, Kennedy, Stassen, Nixon." In 1959 the Democrats came up with an elaborate plan to take control of the White House from the Republican Party. Four U.S. Senators were considered chief contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, including John F. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey, Stuart Symington, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Adlai E. Stevenson was also favored but personally rejected the idea. Of all of the candidates, John F. Kennedy would realize the greatest success. He spoke of his Catholicism openly and felt the subject of religion in general aPage 10  |  Top of Article target for political debate. He also won the support of many with his views on labor-reform legislation. Both factors were cited as contributing to his successful victory against Eisenhower in 1960.

The Feminine Mystique

Women of the early 1960s were experiencing burgeoning intellectual liberation on college campuses across America, and from this time of great expansion in the feminist movement came the work of freelance magazine journalist Betty Friedan. Her work was born out of her research of former Smith College classmates, to whom Friedan sent questionnaires to follow-up on their post-college lives. What she discovered was that these middle- and upper-middle-class women were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the role for which society had typecast them, that of wife and mother. Friedan called these women victims of the "feminine mystique," or the belief that for a woman to step outside of the role of wife and mother was unnatural, if not dangerous. The book opened up a realm of possibilities for women, who up until this point had been afraid to voice their dissatisfaction with the status quo. The popularity of the book was only part of Friedan's contribution to the feminist movement. In 1966 the author founded the National Organization for Women (NOW).

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  • 1950s: Winston Churchill's Conservative Party is re-elected in the general election in England, signaling an end to the Labor government.
    Today: In power since 1997, the Labor government of Prime Minister Tony Blair is reelected in June 2001.
  • 1950s: Don Larsen of the New York Yankees pitches a no-hit, no-run game for the first time in World Series history, against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
    Today: In 2000 the New York Yankees and the New York Mets play each other in the first World Series between two New York teams since 1956.
  • 1950s: President Eisenhower suffers a heart attack in September 1955, opening up the possibility for Democrats to recapture the presidency.
    Today: Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore loses the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush in one of the most closely contested elections in the history of the United States.
  • 1950s: The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) is the first company authorized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to transmit color television programming. Today: Television consumers are no longer limited to the traditional major network offerings (NBC, CBS, and ABC). People can choose from direct TV, digital cable, and other options providing access to hundreds of channels.
  • 1950s: The Library Services Act extends public library services to several million residents, with forty-eight states awarded services, including librarians and bookmobiles, in new areas. Today: With the advent of electronic books and hand-held computers capable of downloading and storing printed materials, the future of printed books is debated.


84, Charing Cross Road is the best-known of Hanff's four titles published specifically for an adult audience. The work exemplifies an economic and literate prose style, Hanff's hallmarks that have been traditionally celebrated by critics. Many critics, however, find the appeal of Hanff's memoir to be a function of its Victorian charm. For example, ThomasPage 11  |  Top of Article Lask, in a New York Times review, praised the work for its nineteenth-century response to the encroachments of a twentieth-century computerized society. Lask adds that the book is "an emollient for the spirit and the sheath for the exposed nerve." Other critics cite Hanff's keen sense of wit as a contributing factor to the success of the text; a quality recognized consistently by critics with respect to her other works.

84, Charing Cross Road gained critical acclaim and was subsequently adapted for film, television, and the stage. Stanley Kauffman's review in the New Republic did not give these adaptations high marks, however. Calling Hanff's work "a hopeless candidate for the screen," Kauffman believes it to be "almost equally hopeless for the stage," although already dramatized by James Roose-Evans. The problems Kaufmann cites with the work relate to the medium in which they are presented: a series of letters. Kaufmann's concern is that much has to be inferred from the white space of this collection of correspondence in order to create a more cohesive work, thus the work runs the risk of creative compromise in adaptations.


Laura Kryhoski

Kryhoski is currently working as a freelance writer. She has taught English literature in addition to English as a second language overseas. In this essay, Kryhoski considers some of the ambiguities inherent in a literary work constructed solely from Hanff's personal correspondence.

Critics have commented on the elusiveness of the text of 84, Charing Cross Road in its translation onto screen or stage. What makes the work particularly beguiling for the reader (and for the screenwriter or playwright) is the ambiguous characterization of Helene and others, as well as of the specific events of the text, as influenced by its presentation as a bundle of letters. The choppiness of the correspondence leaves more open to interpretation than would the structure of a more traditional novel. Considering the inconsistencies in Helene's character, as well as the overall structure of the work, it is easy to see the story's power to stir the reader's imagination. Subsequently, there is a danger inherent in accepting any one interpretation of the work, or in assuming that it is conclusively a true representation of the author's life.

The characterization of Helene is ambiguous at best. At the outset of the novel, her correspondence is polite enough, witty enough, and acceptable enough to be considered well within the norm of letterwriting etiquette. As time goes on, however, Helene's demeanor changes, giving the impression that one is seeing a side of the writer that is more intimate and therefore more accurate than that which has been previously observed. In the first few months of correspondence with Frank, Helene is congenial in her request to Frank to translate his prices for her on specific items in an effort to pay him properly. Conscious of the slight burden she puts on Frank, Helene explains, "I don't add too well in plain American, I haven't a prayer of ever mastering bilingual arithmetic." She also closes the letter rather wittily, writing of Frank's last letter (in which he addressed her as "Dear Madam"): "I hope that 'madam' doesn't mean over there what it does over here."

In just a month's time, however, Helene's tone has completely changed, although Frank Doel's has not. Responding to his professional reserve, Helene fires at him of her latest purchase, exclaiming, "What kind of a black protestant Bible is this?" She insults the Church of England, claiming that they have "loused up the most beautiful prose ever written." Simply stating "the hell with it," Helene finally concedes to the idea of using her Latin teacher's Vulgate until Frank can find her a suitable copy. The writer comes off as a loose canon in her rather dramatic reaction to the receipt of an unwanted book. This response is particularly surprising because of the seeming liberties Helene takes with the bookseller in a relatively short time, such that her relationship with Marks & Co. might be jeopardized. From previous letters, the frazzled response of the writer is based solely on what seems to be an absurd dependence on books rather than on any prior experience with Frank. She has no reason to believe her request will go unheard, that the bookseller will be less than sympathetic to her plight, or that Frank will not satisfactorily address the problem.

The reader's assumptions of Helene based on this response could indeed be shortsighted. The tenor of further responses seem to be fairly consistent with the outburst in which Helene engages early in the story, a knife-edged sort of moodiness indicative

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Jean de Baer and Anne Bancroft in the 1987 film adaptation of 84 Charing Cross Road, directed by David Jones Jean de Baer and Anne Bancroft in the 1987 film adaptation of 84 Charing Cross Road, directed by David Jones

of someone prone to temperamental flares. However, her correspondence with other members of Marks & Co. bear witness to a different image of Helene, that of the witty prankster. She does not react to Cecily's intrusion into her personal life in the same manner she does with Frank's seemingly harmless mistakes, but is instead chummy in her conversations with the inquisitive Marks & Co. employee. Helene willingly offers details about her life, such as her unflattering appearance, her occupation, and her living space. She is particularly pointed in sharing her feelings for Frank. Relating to Cecily the heap of abuse directed at him, Helene tells her that she purposely gives Frank a difficult time of it. "I'm always bawling him out for something," Helene says, "I'm only teasing, but I know he'll take me seriously. I keep trying to puncture that proper British reserve, if he gets ulcers I did it.

In this light, Helene knowingly tells Cecily of her pranks with Frank with the intention of reaching him. Cecily cannot help but be in the thick of things, and Helene is banking on this fact. She realizes that Frank may eventually be put off by her impetuousness or impulsive outbursts expressed in her letters. But at some point one wonders as to the sincerity of the admission. Based on subsequent responses, it is as if Helene is seeking permission to continue behaving in what she knows to be an unacceptable fashion, without regard for Frank. Although this may seem a bit thin-skinned a view—and although Frank seems to take subsequent outbursts in the true spirit one is to assume, at least according to Helene, that they are given—there is still an edge to her correspondence that creates an interesting picture of the author. She continually makes childish demands of Frank, of his time, and duly responds to disappointment with a flare for the dramatic. But what seems to be behind such behavior is her obsession with the written word, particularly fitting for a writer whose profession puts a great value on wordsmiths. For instance, Helene devotes an entire letter to Frank on the merits of her latest acquisition, a "Giant Modern Library book." Her discourse on the subject continues for a page or two, at one point pleading with Frank for help, concluding with her retirement to bed, where she will "have hideous nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labeled Excerpt, Selection, Passage and Abridged."

What seems to be painfully clear is that the narrator is perhaps unreliable in her perceptions. Wit seems to walk a fine line with the author'sPage 13  |  Top of Article bibliomania, or obsessive book-collecting habits. Her concerns for the future can be taken as a humorous affront or the product of deeper insecurities. But all are hard to infer with any certainty, even by the text's conclusion. Correspondence with Maxine reveals yet another dimension to the communication between Frank, his coworkers at Marks & Co., and Helene. Helene candidly admits to Maxine her fear of meeting her friends at Charing Cross Road based on the persona she has put forward in her letters. Stating that she may not "have the nerve," Helene shares that she writes considerably more outrageous letters than she would if it were not for the safety of a 3,000 mile expanse between New York and London. "I'll probably walk in there one day and walk right out again without telling them who I am," claims Helene.

This is where Helene makes an impact on her audience at Marks & Co., and by extension, her world. She admittedly hides behind the elusiveness of letter writing to avoid intimate contact with those at the bookseller, making empty promises that she will indeed visit London. Yet the reader is privy early on to information that she will not make the trip. Who is to say the reliability of the text, by extension, is not consistent with Helene's own behavior and characterization of herself and the events around her? To say, then, that the author truly opens her life up to interpretation is subjective at best. The omission of various letters is intimated in the sparseness of the collection during specific time periods, and by the choppy progression of letters, noted in the intentional omission of responses logically linking one to the next. In this regard the work becomes truly one of fiction, based mainly on inferences of the reader as to particular details of the text. Relying on these letters, then, the reader finds him- or herself on a slippery slope, blindly relying on the discourse of an unreliable narrator.

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  • The Library of Helene Hanff, by Helene Hanff and edited by Stephen Pastore, was published in 1998. The work is a warm and personal biography of the author, further illuminating her correspondence with the bookseller at Charing Cross. It provides the reader with valuable insight into Hanff's collection of books, and by extension, her life.
  • Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Company, by Lynn Tillman, was published in 1999. An account of what has been called one of the most interesting bookstores in New York City, the work covers not only the opening and closing of the shop, but the life of the young woman who founded and ran it. In addition to a forward by Woody Allen, the book also includes shared recollections of Books & Co. by authors and other New York notables.
  • Bookends: Two Women, One Enduring Friendship, by Madeline B. Stern and Leona G. Rostenberg, was published in 2001. The memoirs of two rare-book dealers and lifelong friends, the work chronicles the lives of two single Jewish-American women, and their struggles and successes against the backdrop of the twentieth century.
  • Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding, was published in 1999. This novel is a warm, humorous look into the private life of a thirty-something publishing professional, as related in a series of diary entries. Bridget Jones is on a quest to quit smoking, lose weight, and find her own sense of inner peace.

Structurally the work also lends itself to various interpretations. Letters are rather temporary documents, momentary recollections suspended in time that may or may not truly reflect the writer behind them. A skilled writer may actually make their presence felt within the context of the correspondence. There is inherent danger, however, inPage 14  |  Top of Article guessing the nature of a person or a particular event or events based solely on such correspondence. Nora aptly demonstrates this to Helene, admitting she does not put the most impressive foot forward in her correspondence due to rather poor writing ability. Personality, then, is lost in the translation, as is additional information about the lives of the characters occurring in the white space of the work. The white space referred to in literature is that open or blank expanse created by gaps in time and plot unaccounted for by the text, literally the blank page. It is in this space that one must infer or make connections in the text as to the motivations of specific characters, or the impact of particular events on the story. The packaging by the author of a bundle of letters leaves quite a bit to the reader in terms of interpretation. Considering the task, it is understandable that critics the likes of Stanley Kauffman have pondered the logistics of the text only to conclude that the work does not lend itself to adaptation for stage or screen.

It is a work based purely on perceptions rather being driven by plot. To try to translate any one reader's experience with the text into another form, then, to universalize the experience for the reader, is perhaps doing both Hanff and the fans of 84, Charing Cross Road a great disservice. The power of the work lies within the imagination of the reader who happens on it at a particular moment. This idea seems to gel quite well with Helene Hanff's own feelings on London travel. She shares aptly, "I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for." Of the existence of the England of English literature, the author concludes, "Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Looking around the rug one thing's for sure: it's here."

Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on 84, Charing Cross Road, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Doreen Piano

Piano is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Bowling Green State University. In the following essay, Piano explores a writer's emotional and intellectual attachment to books as represented by her correspondence to a bookseller at an antiquarian bookshop in London.

Published in 1970, 84, Charing Cross Road by writer Helene Hanff is an unusual memoir that reveals the author's love not only of books but also her passion for letter writing and, on a deeper note, human communication. The story centers around a series of letters written by Helene Hanff, a New York writer, to the bookseller Frank Doel, who works at the antiquarian bookstore Marks & Co., located for many years at 84, Charing Cross Road in central London. Beginning in 1949, the letters cover twenty years of correspondence, ending in 1969 with the death of Frank Doel, who has over the years provided Helene with an extraordinary number of used books ranging from the Socratic dialogues to nineteenth-century classics like Pride and Prejudice. Yet more than simply a business exchange or monetary transaction, the correspondence between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel shows how cultural difference and geographic distance cannot inhibit friendships from developing, particularly when both correspondents share a love of books. In addition, their trans-Atlantic friendship can be seen as a continuance of the congenial relations forged during World War II between the United States and Great Britain.

84, Charing Cross Road is made up of a series of letters in chronological order that convey a deepening intimacy and affection between the two main correspondents, Helene Hanff and Frank Doel. What is most striking while reading the letters is how very different these two people are. Right at the onset of their correspondence, the reader gets an immediate sense of two very different personalities emerging. On the one hand, Helene is direct, personal, and expressive. Her humor surfaces in the second letter where she writes as an afterward, "I hope 'madam' doesn't mean over there what it does here," referring to Frank's form of address despite Helene signing her name "Helene Hanff (Miss)." Although very little detail is given in terms of physical description, class background, or education, the reader is able to envision Helene as a typical New Yorker. She is quick to speak (or write) her mind about thePage 15  |  Top of Article books she is receiving, whether it is praising the beauty and condition of the books or castigating their contents. For example, in the letter dated November 18, 1949, she begins her letter with a question in capital letters, "WHAT KIND OF A BLACK PROTESTANT BIBLE IS THIS?," thus revealing her dismay at receiving a bible that does not meet her expectations. Whereas Helene's letters are often emotive, her outrage usually conveyed through the use of capital letters, Frank's letters are formal and direct, practically to the point of being anonymous and impersonal. This anonymity is seen in the way he signs his letters using his initials, FPD. From the tone of his letters, he is acting as one who conducts business should act, which is polite but distant. One can imagine Frank being quite alarmed at receiving some of Helene's letters, yet his responses hardly ever reveal that she has said something that may offend. He is the quintessential British gentleman, or at least he seems to be.

Although Helene Hanff and Frank Doel could not be more dissimilar, Helene's warm abrasive wit and generosity eventually breaks down the cool exterior that Doel exudes at the beginning of their correspondence. Her references to dental work, her badgering comments to Frank for not doing his job, and her joy at receiving books she loves all contribute to establishing a more intimate relationship not only with Frank but also with many of the staffers at the bookstore. Even more so, Helene's generosity in sending care packages reveals a sensitivity to the conditions of post-WWII England. Because a good portion of the letters are written when England's population was on government food rations and where basic goods like eggs were a luxury, affordable only to the most economically well-off, Helene's care packages make her a hit among the staff and Frank Doel's family. In fact, after she sends the staff a ham for Christmas in 1949, Frank begins to sign his name Frank Doel instead of FPD. Other staff members also then begin to write her letters. Her correspondence eventually extends to Frank's wife and later, when they are grown, to his children. In these letters, Helene is able to get a more in-depth portrait of Frank as well as the England that he represents to her.

In return for the gifts of hosiery and foodstuffs, Helene receives a number of beautiful antiquarian books and a handmade Irish linen tablecloth made by a neighbor of Frank's. In addition, Helene is offered free room and board whenever she decides to visit England by both the Doel family and others at Marks & Co. This cultural exchange reveals on a more personal scale the ties that have developed between Great Britain and the United States and contributes in a small way to the rebuilding of England's infrastructure, many of its cities having been destroyed by German bombing campaigns. As Helene herself notes in a letter to the whole staff, "I send you greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve." Thus, these gifts are an extension of her personal investment in English culture, especially its literature.

Even more than being war allies, it is Helene's love of books and passion for Western literature that fuels her passion for maintaining relations with people she has not met. The correspondence, while divulging personal information, especially in Helene's letters, is primarily focused on keeping Helene well-stocked in many of the canonical works of literature and more obscure items such as musical scores. Her references to reading and receiving books from Marks & Co. take up a good portion of the contents of her letters. In her brash demands for books to be hunted down is a zest for reading great literature. In fact, her drive to acquire quality books is a way for her to develop a repartee with Frank. A letter, dated February 9, 1952, is a particularly noteworthy example of not only her desire to read the literary classics especially when they are bound in beautifully made books, but also her reliance on Frank to find what she is searching for. Addressed to "SLOTH," the letter reveals Helene's despair of not having anything substantive to read. "I could ROT over here before you'd send me anything to read. i oughtta run straight down to brentano's which i would if anything i wanted was in print." She ends the letter, "MISS Hanff to you. (I'mPage 16  |  Top of Article Helene only to my FRIENDS)," acknowledging not only Frank's inability to fill her book requests but also his unceasing formality, even after three years of correspondence and the many care packages she has sent.

Moreover, by reading books by England's finest writers and being in touch with the staff at Marks & Co., Helene begins to envision an England that most likely exists only in her imagination. Despite her many letters that claim she will be in England soon, Helene never ends up going. On the surface, it seems like a monetary problem. As a struggling writer, Helene's income is unpredictable, and what she does earn seems to go to her dentist. Later, after she begins making more money, she moves into a bigger and better flat. Yet, as the years go by, there seems to be something else more at stake in her not going. By the end of the correspondence, it is evident that Helene will never go. Physically being there is impertinent as for the past twenty years Helene has been imagining England through the books she has. As she says in her last letter dated April 11, 1969,

years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I'd go looking for the England of English literature, and he nodded and said, 'It's there.' Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. Looking around the rug one thing's for sure: it's here.

For Helen, 84, Charing Cross Road is part of a world that she prefers to keep isolated from the material world of actual people and places. Instead, the bookshop and its occupants is contained within the books she buys as well as a product of her imagination.

In the end, 84, Charing Cross Road is an homage to a place never visited and people never seen, only imagined. In her letters, Helene's passion for reading spills over to her passion for all things British that results in making deep connections to a number of people from Frank Doel to his fellow workers and family. It is not surprising that Frank's wife, Nora, writes Helene about her husband passing away since they have exchanged letters as well as gifts over the years. Nora even admits that she has been jealous of Helene because "Frank so enjoyed your letters and they or some were so like his sense of humour." Thus, she makes clear that two people who appear to be so different on the surface are actually quite similar. Although Helene will probably never make it to England, she realizes that she does not need to go to wonder at its marvels. Rather, the marvels are imbedded in both her memory and the books she has received over the years.

Source: Doreen Piano, Critical Essay on 84, Charing Cross Road, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Sybil Steinberg

In the following interview, Steinberg discusses with Hanff her method of self-education and the impact of writing in her life.

The frustrated actress in Helene Hanff, well documented in her autobiographical chronicles: 84, Charing Cross Road, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Underfoot in Show Business, and in her latest work, Q's Legacy, out this month from Little, Brown (Fiction Forecasts, June 14), gives a bravura performance to raise the curtain on our interview. A pixie with moxie, Hanff takes center-stage in her one-room Manhattan apartment to deliver a mock excoriation of PW and her interviewer in particular.

"I am infuriated that Publishers Weekly is interviewing me," she begins, and goes on to explain that she had no sooner finished writing an article, fashioned especially for PW, about "how one gets to be a walking ad" for one's publishers, when we called to request this interview, thus precluding the purchase of her opus. It is, she says, her tart tongue in cheek, just one more example of how an author's precarious financial state is undermined by even the hands that should feed it.

The zam-bang opening and antic humor are characteristic of Hanff, who in her latest book again relates the adventures that transformed her life. "At an age when most executives are considering early retirement, I was a failed playwright, a television writer who was unwilling to follow the industry to Hollywood, a writer of children's books no one was publishing any more," she says. Within the next decade, the play adapted from her most popular book was a hit in London and went on to be featured in repertory theaters all over the world, a plaque carrying her name is prominently displayed at the site of the bookstore she made famous in London's Charing Cross Road, she is the recipient of adulatory fan mail, and she has finally achieved an income above the poverty level.

In Q's Legacy, Hanff pays tribute to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the Cambridge scholar whose books she used to educate herself when she could not afford to go to college during the Depression. Inspired by "Q," who "brought English literature into myPage 17  |  Top of Article life," Hanff embarked on a writing career that, to hear her tell it, has had more downs than ups. As she reveals in Q's Legacy with insouciant candor, for every successful book she has written, several others have ended up in the incinerator. "I have not only started bad books, I have finished them!" she announces with gusto. "André Deutsch [Hanff's London publisher] once said, 'If you wrote the phone book, we'd have to publish it because you have such a big following in London.' I then wrote three phone books, and he wouldn't publish any of them because he had the sense to know they were bad books. I didn't know, or I never would have finished them."

Hanff ruefully describes some of the books she has thrown away. One was a guidebook resulting from a one-week, government tourist office-sponsored tour of Israel in which she and six other travel writers were "imprisoned in a bus for six days, twoand-one-half of them spent in Tel Aviv. We never got out of the bus except in a group with our tour guide, whom we nicknamed Brunhilde. Now you know that you're never going to get a book out of six days on a bus."

Next was a book on dogs, a subject she was told could not miss. "I happen to be goofy about dogs. So I strung together 150 doggy anecdotes. It was dreadful."

"The third we do not discuss," she announces in a lugubrious voice, and discusses it anyway. "I wrote it for the first time in 1963 at my editor Gene [Genevieve] Young's suggestion. It was terrible, and we dropped it down the incinerator. I wrote it for the second time in 1968. Ditto. I wrote it for the third time in 1975. Ditto. Ask me what I'm going to spend '85 and '86 doing! I think I've finally found the right approach. Of course, it may go down the incinerator like its three predecessors. But I'm hopeful."

The books that have made it to publication and earned Hanff a legion of devoted readers all relate the story of her life. She has learned, she says, that she can only write about things that have happened to her. "You'd be amazed how many ways you can tell the same autobiography. I've never written anything else, though I never told the whole story in any of them. But each time Gene Young read the first draft of my books, she called and said, 'You've left yourself out of it.' It took me just ages to get up the nerve to start with me. So this time, when I first had the horrible suspicion I was about to fall down the same rat hole again, I tacked up a sign over my typewriter: 'You've left yourself out of it!' In Q's Legacy, line one, page one begins with me. Because I finally realized that unless it was a story about my life—in which scads of other people are involved, of course—it would be a bust again."

While Hanff may put herself into her books, her self-deprecatory comments about her appearance should not be taken seriously. At various points in Q's Legacy she calls herself "plain and mousy," "small, round-shouldered," "nearsighted, awkward and clumsy," "easy and assured on paper, but awkward and stiff in person." In reality, she is a gamine with a monk's haircut and a friendly, energetic, offhand manner. Shoeless, her trim figure clad in corduroy slacks and a cotton blouse with turned-up sleeves, she could be a peppy teenager. She chops out her conversation in a flagrant Philadelphia accent animated by colloquialisms and delivered in what she calls her "gin baritone," but which is most probably attributable to the cigarettes she smokes.

Her mocking self-put-downs tend to endear Hanff to her readers, many of whom feel that they know her and behave in a proprietary fashion. In Q's Legacy, Hanff acknowledges that she is a "cult author" and describes the numerous favors that fans ask of her, from autographing books and mailing them out as gifts, to phoning her in the middle of the night to chat. She answers every fan letter she receives. "I'm a very chummy type," she declares. "I have never written 'Thank you so much for your letter,' because that would take longer than just writing off the top of my head. But when I'm writing 50 thank-you notes, each of the 50 recipients is getting just one and they think I'm their best friend. I, of course, forget what I've said almost immediately."

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Sometimes the ramifications of a long-forgotten letter get Hanff in temporary difficulties. Replying to a fan who wrote that he had been tempted to purloin the Marks & Co. sign that once hung outside the bookstore at 84, Charing Cross Road, she scribbled, "Why didn't you?" and thought no more of the incident. When the fan called some months later and announced triumphantly that he had acquired the sign for her, she was at first nonplussed and then delighted; the handsome silver-and-black nameplate now hangs on the wall in the alcove where shelves hold the treasured volumes she bought from Marks & Co. and the dog-eared texts by Q, the nucleus of her collection and the inspiration for her later purchases.

According to Hanff, every week brings phone calls from people who have just discovered her books, have seen or are acting in the play adapted from 84, Charing Cross Road. "People phone and they apologize for disturbing me. I say, 'Listen, honey, if I didn't want to talk to you, my number wouldn't be listed.' Then they get loose. Or they begin, 'Miss Hanff, you don't know me.' They're stiff. So I jump in. I say, 'Oh you obviously read books; so I know you."'

Many callers express appreciation of Hanff's guidebook to New York, titled The Apple of My Eye. They would be surprised to know that the book marked a low point in the author's life. According to Hanff, Doubleday commissioned the guide for $7500, a sum so low that her agent Flora Roberts even contributed her fee, adding another $750 to Hanff's meager earnings. Living on the half of the fee advanced to her during the six months it took to research the book, Hanff says she was "flat broke the whole time. A friend and I took 13 day trips touring New York. We did it on the cheap. I could only buy us one decent lunch; the rest of the time we ate in cafeterias. We had ferry fares, museum charges, car fares. But when I turned in an itemized expense account for $138, Doubleday wouldn't pay it! They said it would have to come out of my advance."

This is one of the incidents that have caused Hanff to take a dim view of the author's lot. Another was the fate of her book Underfoot in Show Business, which "crept out during the New York newspaper strike in 1962 and promptly died." When Little, Brown reissued the book in 1980, Gene Young sent letters to newspapers and booksellers explaining that it had not been reviewed the first time around and asking them to treat it as a new book. "So what happened? Every reviewer said, 'This is an old book,' and didn't review it. Every bookseller said, 'This is an old book,' and stuck it up in the balcony."

Despite her bad luck in this case, Hanff knows herself incomparably fortunate in her relationship with Young, whom she followed from Harper & Row to Lippincott to Little, Brown. "I hope she stays at Little, Brown," she says somewhat wistfully. "They do the most beautiful job. Their editors care. Their copy editor is wonderful. And their printers are meticulous." Hanff "thanks God" for Young, who is supportive, but not falsely encouraging. "You send your book to Gene, and she calls you the next day and says, 'I read it, I don't like it.' You know where you are instantly. No kid gloves. No smooth, ad agency-ese. None of that. But when she does like it, you know it immediately. I depend on that."

Hanff also thanks the deity for James Roose-Evans, who adapted 84, Charing Cross Road for the stage. She confesses herself "speechless" at the royalties she receives, as she was when she discovered herself the toast of London at the play's premiere. Equally astonishing to her is that Samuel French purchased the play and made it available to theatre groups around the world, most of whom seem to have contacted her one way or another. She was taken aback however, by a letter from a young Scottish actress who said she had been quite relieved to learn that Hanff was still alive.

Her royalty payments still make Hanff feel somewhat guilty, since she regards these profits as money she did not actually earn. Having fended off the wolf at the door so frequently, she is almost fanatic about managing her finances on the pay-asyou-go plan. "The one drawback about being a writer is that you never know in any month where the rent is coming from six months from then," she says earnestly. "That's why I never buy anything on time." Only the experience of being stranded in the Minneapolis airport sans money or her ticket, which mysteriously disappeared, she says, between the airport door and the check-in counter, convinced her to apply for a credit card, which then lay dormant for a long time before she could convince herself it was not wicked to use it.

She is equally compulsive in her attitude toward her readers, who, she is determined, must getPage 19  |  Top of Article their money's worth from her books. "I worry a helluva lot more about my readers than I do about reviewers," she says. "I have nightmares that they'll run out and get the new book and be disappointed. I'd die rather than let them down."

It is an old-fashioned attitude, but then Hanff is somewhat of an anachronism in the contemporary world. Having taken Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch as her personal mentor, and having been introduced in his books to Izaak Walton, Shakespeare and Milton, she is high on the merits of a literary education, particularly as preparation for a writing career. "Of course you must choose your models sensibly," she says. "I love John Henry Newman to death, but he doesn't write American English. Fortunately I had Q's lectures, which kept me from going off the deep end."

Asked whether her method of self-education would seem feasible to young people these days, she answers, "I think the people who still want to are the people who have to. There are still kids growing up in slums, with a terrible need to write, who, knowing that college is beyond them, will go to libraries and read anything they can get their hands on. They will be just as dependent on libraries as I was. The ethnics may have changed—these kids are not lower middle class, they are underclass—but the need for knowledge still exists and especially the need for immersion in good writing." Hanff cites James Baldwin, a writer she very much admires, as a master of English prose learned primarily from the Bible.

As for herself, she would do it all over again, Hanff says. "I don't think I had a choice. I wouldn't have half-starved if I could have helped it. But if writing is the only thing you want to do, and the only thing you know how to do, you do it." Sometimes her reliance on her own life experiences for material gives her anxious moments, she confesses. "One thing about the books I write, ideas for them are not going to fly in the window," she observes. "The thing I must do is dig back into my own past, and at my age, I have to go back plenty. I may not have had a busy life, but it's been long, that's a blessing." Momentarily serious, Hanff then responds in characteristic fashion to our expression of relief that she still has material to draw on. "Relieves you, honey," she cackles, "it gives me a nervous tic!"

Source: Sybil Steinberg, "PW Interviews: Helene Hanff," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 228, No. 5, August 2, 1985, pp. 70–71.


Axelrod, Alan, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Twentieth Century History, Alpha Books, 1999, pp. 255–365.

Frankel, Haskel, Review of 84, Charing Cross Road, in Saturday Review, November 7, 1970, p. 38.

Kauffman, Stanley, Review of 84, Charing Cross Road, in New Republic, February 23, 1987, p. 24.

Lask, Thomas, Review of 84, Charing Cross Road, in New York Times, September 11, 1970.


Basbanes, Nicholas A., A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, Henry Holt & Company, 1995.

Bibliomania, or the passion to collect books, is celebrated in this historical account of book collecting which begins 2,200 years ago in Alexandria. The work also includes more contemporary stories of book junkies, some driven to criminal acts to sustain their habit.

——, Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture, HarperCollins, 2001.

Basbanes focuses on the book culture, talking with obsessed readers about their enduring passion for books. The work is a profile of librarians, writers, readers, booksellers, and the like, all dedicated book enthusiasts.

Hanff, Helene, Q's Legacy, Penguin, 1986.

This work offers insight into the creation of 84, Charing Cross Road. In it, Hanff recalls her discovery of a volume of lectures by a Cambridge don. Under "Q's" guidance (a recommended list of reading), Hanff begins to order books from Marks & Co., the small bookseller at Charing Cross Road, by letter— correspondence that ultimately forms the basis for 84, Charing Cross Road.

Jenkins, Roy, Churchill: A Biography, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001.

Jenkins relays the story of Winston Churchill, one of the greatest figures in English politics, while providing a great historical account of British politics. The author of the work is a former Labor member of the House of Commons.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420100012