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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 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.

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