Study Guide

84, Charing Cross Road

by Helene Hanff

84, Charing Cross Road Summary

Introduction

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.

84, Charing Cross Road Summary

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. 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...

(The entire section is 1655 words.)