Both books are autobiographical. 84 Charing Cross Road was first published in 1970 and is a collection of letters between Hanff, a book lover from America and the staff of a antiquarian bookshop Marks & Co at 84 Charing Cross Road, London. In The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene records her journey to London where she finally visits the bookshop and the city that she has become so fond of, meeting old friends along the way. I read both books one after the other, which I think is the best way to do it.
84 Charing Cross Road was my favourite of the two books.
Reading the correspondence just felt so natural. The written relationship between Helene and the book shop lasted for more than twenty years. Helene's main correspondent was Frank Doel, the main buyer from Marks & Co. Over time though, she cultivates a relationship with other employees at the bookshop, as well as Frank's wife, their neighbour and other wonderful people. There were sometimes big gaps in time between the letters in books, were obviously some of the correspondence was missing, but it was also obvious that they had been writing to each other in the mean time.
Although the subject of their correspondence was largely about the books that she orders from their shop, it is clear that the correspondence is about something more. It is about their burgeoning friendship. She sends everyone care packages of food to help them through their tough times, and surprises them with gifts of stockings and the like. You really get a sense of who everyone is, even though you only get glimpses of their lives and personalities through the short letters. Helene manages to write simultaneously rude but caring letters and you can feel Frank's soft side hidden under his stiff English manners. Helene is always planning a trip to London but there is always something else that she has to prioritise her time and money on. It is therefore sad when she receives a letter informing her of her friend Frank's death.
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street provided a closure the story of Helene and her relationship with the people of Marks & Co.
It was the success of 84 Charing Cross Road that finally provided her with her opportunity to visit London. She is able to visit on a book tour, and it was wonderful to read her account of the experience of finally meeting some of her correspondents as well as many other interesting and warm hearted people that show her the city that she has come to love.
I loved that the older and more mature Hanff in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street was immediately recognisable as the younger one in 84 Charing Road. She has such a wonderfully dry and sarcastic sense of humour that I found hilarious.
And the books!
Her love of books was extraordinary and perhaps a little unique. She describes herself as a chronic re-reader, which until this year perhaps, I could absolutely identify with. I also admired her love of books as objects. Some of her descriptions of the books that she receives from Marks & Co made me want to drool. It was all I could do from running out and spending hundreds of dollars on beautiful antique books.
One of my absolutely favourite moments in both books came towards the end of The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. She has finally made it Oxford and has plans for what she has always wanted to see, but instead she finds herself hijacked by a friend who insists that she visit this particular book shop. She has this to say:
"I despair of ever getting it through everybody's head that I am not interested in bookshops, I am interested in what's written in the books. I don't browse in bookshops, I browse in libraries, where you can take a book home and read it, and if you like it you go to a bookshop and buy it".My own attitude to bookshops and libraries is very different, but I admire her approach. If I shared it, I would be a richer woman right now I can assure you.
Overall, both books were less about books than I expected. They were about the joy of human companionship. Most importantly, they showed the power of books and language to forge friendships, something I think that is replicated in some way amoungst book bloggers.
What kind of read is this?
Both books are quick and easy to read, in fact I read both in one sitting. But they are really heart warming, especially for book lovers.
Do I recommend this book?
Yes, I recommend both.
Do I recommend that you buy these books?
No. Borrowing them would be fine. As much as I enjoyed them, I don't think that they are the kind of books that you would re-read.