Helene Hanff Letters: How to tell a story without trying.

Years ago I watched a lovely video about Helene Hanff, a New York script writer with a passion for antiquarian books. 84 Charing Cross Road is the title of it. Based on the book of her letters to Marks & Company, a colorful, poignant story emerges about a starving New York screenwriter and Londoners recovering from the devastation of the war who became her friends through their love of literature.

The shop employees became Helene’s friends over a 20-year period of correspondence. She had learned, from an English couple who lived in her building, that Londerers were under strict rationing of meat, eggs, and other commodities in post war England. She began to send packages filled with canned meats, dried eggs, and later, nylons to the women employees at the store. Each one began to write Helene notes stuffed into the envelope with those of the proprietor, Frank Dole. Most of the letters are hilarious, others sad, but all dripping with the little details of lives during this period of history in the U.S.A. and London: 1949 – 69.

However, the letters between Frank Dole, proprietor at Marks & Company, and Helene, function like an artwork where a few essential lines allow the viewer to fill in the full portrait. I love books like this that spark the imagination while providing an essential record of the times in which they lived. It is a love story of a kind which you will just have to investigate yourself to know what I mean. 

Helene Hanff’s humorous and unedited opinions on everything from “cardboarddy” American published books to baseball are timeless. We learn about a self-educating writer whose love of English literature filled her mind and soul with inspiration as she followed her heart’s delight through the diligence and exceptional taste of Marks & Company and whose employee — Frank Dole — roamed the castles and estates of Merry Ole England finding rare and second-hand antiquarian books of English Literature. Helene’s tastes were specific to the point of eccentricity but Frank “got” Helene. His letters include a satisfying refrain that makes this second-hand book lover feel deep satisfaction: “a good clean copy”. 

Helene writes that she loves a book that has been read before with notes or marks that link them as voyagers on the same journey. Do you relate? I am a reader who loves that. I like to find original purchase receipts from, say, the 1950’s or earlier. Maybe its been made on an old receipt pad, the ones with the black inked page in between the proprietor’s copy and the buyer’s receipt.

The copy of 84 Charing Cross Road that I purchased is a limited new edition published by  another antiquarian book company in London — Slightly Foxed. My edition came in a nice cloth binding and eggshell-colored paper with gilded edges, a very “clean copy”, and a note handwritten by one of the women proprietors. I regularly tune into the Slightly Foxed Podcast to learn about books, publishing, and authors “across the pond”.

It was not until after Frank Dole died, and Marks & Company closed, that Helene thought to publish the letters. She finally received a decent enough income from the popularity of the book that allowed her to visit the London “of English Literature” and the old building and shopfront at 84 Charing Cross Road which had become such an important part of her life.

Think about what letters you may possess that could tell a story which is actually never fully manifest on the page but which is evoked between the lines. I highly recommend that you read Hanff’s book before you embark on that journey! Also watch the video, in which Helene is played be Anne Bancroft and Frank by Anthony Hopkins.

Order your book from Slightly Foxed. Let’s help out those London girls with a passion for good literature.

 

 

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