Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1655
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...
(The entire section contains 1655 words.)
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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 rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve’’ in the postwar 1950s.
Another moment reveals an exasperated Helene who cannot believe her beloved bookseller would send her a book of excerpts from Pepys Diary rather than the entire work, telling Frank ‘‘I could just spit.’’ Frank responds apologetically, with much greater enthusiasm than he has demonstrated in the past. He assures Helene that there will be better times in the future for London, in anticipation of Winston Churchill’s re-election. ‘‘You dizzy me,’’ says Helene out of guilt for her sudden outburst over Pepys Diary.
In a letter to Maxie, aka Maxine, Helene requests that her friend purchase four pairs of nylons for the girls working at the bookseller and also for Frank’s wife, after receiving a letter from Nora Doel. In her correspondence, Nora had shared the value of trading a tin of dried eggs for the stockings. Helene tells Maxie that, despite her desire to visit England and her beloved bookseller, she feels more comfortable writing ‘‘the most outrageous letters from a safe 3,000 miles away.’’
Helene also responds to Nora and Frank’s acquisition of their first car, an extremely difficult commodity to come by new or, in this case, used. She shares her hardships with Frank, those of purging overflowing bookshelves and the cost of having her teeth capped. In her last letter in 1952, she admits to the uneven exchange of holiday gifts. ‘‘You’ll eat yours up in a week. . . . I’ll have mine till the day I die.’’ Helene thrills in the idea that her scribblings in pale pencil will be discovered by ‘‘some book lover yet unborn.’’
Correspondence, May 3, 1953 to May 8, 1960
In 1953 Cecily tells Helene she should forget the care packages and save for a trip to London in 1955. In 1955, in a letter to Frank, Helene inquires whether Cecily is still in Iraq. ‘‘Do you mean to sit there and tell me you’ve been publishing these mammoth catalogues all these years and this is the first time you ever bothered to send me one?’’ exclaims Helene in the same letter. She sends the letter along with a prayer request for the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the World Series.
‘‘Will you tell Megan Wells she is out of her cotton picking mind,’’ says Helene of a Marks & Co. employee’s choice to move to South Africa. Changes are also afoot for the writer, whose eviction notice from her New York brownstone has pushed her to acquire ‘‘a real apartment with real furniture’’ and ‘‘wall-to-wall carpeting,’’ although it means postponing her anticipated trip to London. ‘‘All this and the Dodgers disintegrating before my very eyes,’’ she says of the entire affair.
Frank comforts Helene after hearing her television shows have moved to Hollywood. Five months later, Helene shares that she has won a $5,000 grant from CBS to write American history dramatizations. She kids with Frank, telling him that her first script will involve New York under seven years of British occupation, ‘‘and I marvel at how I rise above it to address you in friendly and forgiving fashion, your behavior over here from 1776 to 1783 was simply filthy.’’
Correspondence, ‘‘Sunday Night and a hell of a way to start 1960’’ to October 1969
Helene is struck enough by a giant Modern Library book given to her as a Christmas gift to devote a considerable amount of time corresponding with Frank about the work on New Year’s Day. She considers the pairing of the works of John Donne and William Blake into one volume an absurdity. In the end, says Helene, ‘‘I’m being driven clear up the wall, Frankie, you have got to help me.’’
With only a $1,500 book advance for the next six months, Helene must watch her finances. ‘‘So I can’t buy any books’’ she says, opting to visit the Society Library for a copy of Memoirs of the Duke de Saint-Simon, only to find herself short on time to finish it. When she suggests Frank buy it to hold on reserve until a later date, Frank insists on sending six volumes to her without payment. ‘‘Your credit will always be good at Marks & Co.,’’ he tells Helene.
‘‘Enclosed-please-God-please-find a $10 bill,’’ says Helene to Frank, who cannot bear to have Memoirs without paying something toward it. In a brief story about a dinner meeting with her editor from Harper’s, Helene talks about her dramatization of Walter Savage Landor’s Aesop and Rhodope for Hallmark. Two hours before the program airs, she is dismayed to find a photo of a sculpture in the New York Times. The caption read ‘‘Rhodope, the most famous prostitute in Greece’’—a fact she never knew while writing the show for the family program. Her editor, reveals Helene, was impatient rather than sympathetic. ‘‘You see how it is, Frankie,’’ writes Helene, ‘‘you’re the only soul alive who understands me.’’
On January 8, 1969, Helene is informed of Frank’s death. He was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital for a ruptured appendix and died a week later. A letter from Nora followed some twenty-one days afterward. His wife pays him a glowing tribute, and admits her now growing awareness of his talents as letters and acknowledgements continue to reach her. The only other admission Nora makes is that she has always been envious of Helene’s writing ability and of Helene and Frank’s relationship.
When Maxine says she is going to London and asks Helene if she would like to go, Helene shares that she almost wept when asked if she would consider going, provided she had the fare. She decides that maybe it is best she did not go after having dreamt about it for so many years. Speaking to the mysteries of the England of English literature, she says, ‘‘maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Looking around the rug one thing’s for sure: it’s here.’’ The work ends with the epilogue, a letter from one of Frank’s daughters giving Helene permission to publish her letters with Marks & Co. in book form.