Skip to main content

Review: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, by Helene Hanff

Pages: 137
Original date of publication: 1973
My edition: 1976
Why I decided to read: it seemed like the perfect thing to bring on the plane when I went on vacation to England
How I acquired my copy: Amazon UK, January 2010

You decide to stop using the word “anachronism” when a seventeenth-century carriage drives through the gates of Buckingham Palace carrying twentieth-century Russian or African diplomats to be welcomed by a queen. “Anachronism” implies something long dead, and nothing is dead here. History, as they say, is alive and well and living in London (p. 82)

In 84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff collected the letters she and Frank Doel, a bookseller in London’s famous Charing Cross Road, exchanged for twenty years, from just after WWII up until his death. Helene Hanff had always wanted to travel to England, but until the summer of June 1971, after 84 Charing Cross Road had been published and she went on tour to publicize the book, she had never had the opportunity to do so. This short book is a diary that Helene kept for the three weeks that she was in London and environs, meeting Frank Doel’s family and some of the many people who enjoyed 84, Charing Cross Road.

I went on vacation to London (and York) for a week at the beginning of the month, so I thought this would be the perfect book to get me in the mood for the trip. It’s a short book; I finished it in a couple of hours on the plane ride. Helene Hanff went everywhere and did everything, it seems: Bloomsbury (personally, my favorite part of London), the site of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (which hadn’t yet been reconstructed by Sam Wannamaker), Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London. Some of those were places I went, too, so it was fun for me to read about what she saw and did. Helene even got so see some of the sights outside London: Eton and Oxford (only Helene could have a hissy fit in the middle of Wadham Yard!).

The same funny, witty tone of voice she used in 84, Charing Cross Road comes right across in this novel, and I enjoyed reading some of her insights into England and the English (some of them ironic, as in):

I find the treatment of royalty distinctly peculiar. The royal family lives in palaces heavily screened from prying eyes by fences, grounds, gates, guards, all designed to ensure the family absolute privacy. And every newspaper in London carried headlines announcing PRINCESS ANNE HAS OVARIAN CYST REMOVED. I mean you’re a young girl reared in heavily guarded seclusion and every beer drinker in every pub knows the pricese state of your ovaries (p. 77-78).

I must admit that I have a soft spot for Helene Hanff; we both have a Philadelphia connection, plus we are/were massive Anglophiles (and she incidentally has the same birthday as my sister). I love the blunt, direct way that she addresses her readers, almost as if she’s telling her story to you in person. She also has some great insights into London: how you can tell a city’s character based on its parks:

All the parks here are every serene, very gentle… lying in peaceful St. James’s, I realize how much a city’s parks reflect the character of its people. The parks here are tranquil, quiet, a bit reserved, and I love them. But on a long-term basis I would sorely miss the noisy exuberance of Central Park (pp54-56).


Danielle said…
I read this earlier this year along with a reread of 84 Charing Cross Road and really enjoyed. I love her acerbic wit!
Lisa May said…
This is one of my favorite books about London. Her excitement at finally getting there after so many years just radiates.
I loved this as much as 84 Charing Cross Road - it's so feel good, light-hearted and... happy! And brings London to life, which is always nice.

Popular posts from this blog

Review: Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor

Pages: 972 Originally published: 1944 My edition: 2000 (Chicago Review Press) How I acquired my copy:, 2004

Forever Amber takes place in the 1660s, immediately follwing Charles II's ("the Merry Monarch") return of the Stuarts to the English throne. The book features Amber St. Claire, a young woman who starts out as a sixteen-year-old country girl, naieve to the workings of the world. She immediately meets Bruce Carlton, a dashing young Cavalier, with whom she has a passionate love affair in choppy intervals throughout the book. They have two children together, but Bruce won't marry her for the reason he tells his friend Lord Almsbury: that Amber just isn't the kind of woman one marries.

Upon following Bruce to London, he goes to Virginia, leaving her to fend for herself. What follows is a series of affairs and four marriages, with Bruce coming back from America now and then. Amber's marriages are imprudent: her first husband is a gambler, her second is…

Review: Jane Austen's Letters, ed. by Deirdre Le Faye

Pages: 667 Original date of publication: 2011 My copy: 2011 (Oxford University Press) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy:, April 2013
This is a compilation of many of Jane Austen’s letters, most of them sent to her sister Cassandra between 1796 and 1817, the year of her death. Although many of Austen’s letters were destroyed by her sister in order to preserve the family reputation, the collection contains over 160 letters in which Austen gives her sister details about her life in Chawton—as well as giving us a tantalizing glimpse of what was going through her mind as she was writing her novels (especially the novel that was to become Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions). There are other letters here, too, giving advice to her niece and professional correspondence to publishers—as well as a couple of letters that were written by Cassandra Austen after Jane’s death.
To the sisters, the letters acted in the way that phone calls do today; Austen’s news is all about pe…

Review: Midnight in Peking, by Paul French

Pages: 259 Original date of publication: 2013 My copy: 2013 (Penguin) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Phoenix bookstore, May 2013
In January 1937, the body of a young British girl, Pamela Werner, was found near Peking’s Fox Tower. Although two detectives, one British and the other Chinese, spent months on the case, the case was never solved completely, and the case was forgotten in the wake of the invasion of the Japanese. Frustrated, Pamela’s father, a former diplomat, tried to solve the crime. His investigation took him into the underbelly of Peking society and uncovered a secret that was worse than anything he could have imagined.
At first, I thought that this would be a pretty straightforward retelling of a true crime, but what Paul French (who spent seven years researching the story) reveals in this book is much more than that. Foreign society in Peking in the 1930s was stratified, with the British colonials at the top and the White Russian refugees at the bottom, but…