“Wait here.”

February 8, 2014 @ 5:22 pm | Filed under:

duchess of bloomsbury streetThe other day, reading Mental Multivitamin, I discovered there is a sequel of sorts to 84, Charing Cross Road, which is one of my favorite books. On certain days, it is my favorite book, and certainly it is one I return to ever more frequently, as time goes on.

Now, why it hadn’t occurred to me—obsessive googler and binge-reader that I am—to hunt up the rest of Helene Hanff’s books, given my really almost aching love for 84, Apple of My Eye, and Letter from New York (a book that shaped New York City for me before I met it in person)—why this uncharacteristic lack of ferreting-out on my part, I cannot say. Except perhaps that sometimes a kind of obliviousness is my brain’s way of making good things last…I’m far too prone toward immediate gratification when it comes to books, especially older ones by deceased authors, books I can blithely justify snapping up for a penny + $3.99 shipping on Amazon Prime, and clutch in my greedy hands two days later.

(I have this deal with myself: used books only if the author is no longer living. My way of supporting my comrades in the trenches, and also of keeping my floors from collapsing under the weight of all the books I would spend the grocery money on if I didn’t make up rules for myself.)

Anyway, there it was at MM: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, a string of quotes (I love how Ms. M-mv does that) from Helene Hanff’s diary account of her long-dreamed-of trip to London. 48 hours later, it was mine, formerly the property of Salt Lake County Library System, Whitmore Library. Seems to be a first edition, published in 1973.

I love Helene Hanff. Not just her writing, but her, the person, the crackling, opinionated, piercingly observant New Yorker who toiled over Ellery Queen scripts and her own never-to-be-produced plays, and who, for twenty years, fired off missives exploding with personality to a mild-tempered, unfailingly polite bookstore employee who became a genuine friend. It’s Frank Doel’s wife, Nora, and daughter, Sheila, who meet Helene at the airport in the beginning of Duchess. They, too, had come to know and love her over those twenty years.

I love her like an aunt; perhaps I project a little of my beloved Aunt Genia onto her, hear certain tart remarks in Genia’s voice. Their lives were nothing alike, and Aunt Genia never lived in New York, but they share an unabashedness of opinion and a vast generosity of spirit. My aunt died in 1995, Miss Hanff in 1997, and I miss them both. But Helene I get to revisit endlessly. WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS’ DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS? pops into my head at unexpected intervals, and I laugh out loud, sometimes while standing in line at the post office or pushing a cart through Target.

84, Charing Cross Road, about which I’ve written before, was her first really successful published work, and its success was a tremendous surprise to her. People wrote and called her from all over the world; when she was hospitalized shortly before her London trip, strangers sent flowers and presents. In London at last, she was continually receiving invitations from perfect strangers who’d read and loved her book, and were so happy she was finally visiting their city. I keep tearing up, living these days with her, and then she’ll say something acid and I’m howling. Oh, I love her.

Something else I didn’t know about her until this week (when my google reflex did kick in at last, and I read all her obituaries) was that she considered herself uneducated. She uses that very word in Duchess. It’s astonishing she should have felt that way. She ran out of money after a year of college, that’s why; but there can’t have been many of her generation who were better read than she; she devoured and re-devoured books, the entire canon practically (except fiction; she far preferred essays and history) and knew chunks of them by heart, and all through her books she cross-references like crazy. She was a walking Wikipedia.

Now, reading Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, I find that’s exactly how her education happened: like a long, looping chain of links.

But Oxford I have to see. There’s one suite of freshman’s rooms at Trinity College which John Donne, John Henry Newman, and Arther Quiller-Couch all lived in, in various long-gone eras. Whatever I know about writing English those three men taught me, and before I die I want to stand in their freshman’s rooms and call their names blessed.

Q (Quiller-Couch) was all by himself my college education. I went down to the public library one day when I was 17 looking for books on the art of writing, and found five books of lectures which Q had delivered to his students of writing at Cambridge.

“Just what I need!” I congratulated myself. I hurried home with the first volume and started reading and got to page 3 and hit a snag:

Q was lecturing to young men educated at Eton and Harrow. He therefore assumed that his students—including me—had read Paradise Lost as a matter of course and would understand his analysis of the “Invocation to Light” in book 9. So I said, “Wait here,” and went down to the library and got Paradise Lost and took it home and started reading it and got to page 3 when I hit a snag:

Milton assumed I’d read the Christian version of Isaiah and the New Testament and had learned all about Lucifer and the War in Heaven, and since I’d been reared in Judaism I hadn’t. So I said, “Wait here,” and borrowed a Christian Bible and read about Lucifer and so forth, and then went back to Milton and read Paradise Lost, and then finally got back to Q, page 3. On page 4 or 5, I discovered that the point of the sentence at the top of the page was in Latin and the long quotation at the bottom of the page was in Greek. So I advertised in the Saturday Review for somebody to teach me Latin and Greek, and went back to Q meanwhile, and discovered he assumed I not only knew all the plays of Shakespeare, and Boswell’s Johnson, but also the Second Book of Esdras, which is not in the Old Testament and is not in the New Testament, it’s in the Apocrypha, which is a set of books nobody had ever thought to tell me existed.

So what with one thing and another and an average of three “Wait here’s” a week, it took me eleven years to get through Q’s five books of lectures.

(p. 51)

The original rabbit-trailer. My hero. Q’s “five books of lectures” can be had for nothing, nowadays, along with probably all of the works he references. If I start now, I’ll be as educated as Helene by 2025.

(Oh heavens. That number just gave me the vapors. That’s officially the future, man.)

Helene Hanff eventually wrote a book about her autodidacticism called Q’s Legacy. Needless to say, it’ll be here by Tuesday.

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17 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Ellie says:


    I’ve never read 84, Charing Cross Road.

    **slinks away**

  2. Jessica@MyArdentLife says:

    HH is one of those people I’d love to have to dinner, at least I think I would! 🙂 You must, yes must, read “Underfoot In Show Business.” It’s her memoirs, of a sort only HH could produce. I suspect it’s long out of print, but worth tracking down. I predict you will love it. One of my absolute favorites!

  3. Jennifer G. Miller says:

    Oh, thanks for letting me know! I love 84 Charing and never knew there was a sequel, either! Thrilled to death!

  4. Rachel Jeffers says:

    I love reading your posts but this may be my favorite thus far. You’ve just added sooo many books to my reading list!

  5. Melissa Wiley says:

    Oh, Ellie, you must track it down. I think you would really enjoy it. But now I’m worried I revealed a spoiler—I wasn’t thinking of it as a book one could plot-spoil, since it’s nonfiction, and if you read anything at all about Helene Hanff you encounter that bit of info right off the bat. But I’ve revised above nonetheless. Sorry about that.

    Jessica, I poked around for Underfoot in Show Business yesterday but even used it’s very pricey, so I’m hoping it wanders into my path one of these days. Always happy for an excuse to comb used bookstores.

  6. Ellie says:

    No worries, Lissa! Spoilers generally don’t worry me much … And also, i did see the film? Eons ago … I have put all three books on hold at the library! 🙂

  7. Melissa Wiley says:

    Yes, the film! Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. So wonderful.

    You guys, I’m dying. I just discovered that Scott’s first apartment in Manhattan was ONE BLOCK AWAY from where Helene Hanff lived at the time. I visited him there several times. I could have written her; maybe we could have had lunch. There I was wandering all over NYC with her book (Letter from New York) in my hands, she was basically my tour guide, and she was a block away!

  8. Heather says:

    Ooh, I think I was introduced to 84, Charing Cross Road from your blog, and luckily, my local library at the time had it. Wonderful to know there are others by her, about her reading journeys! Friends who read are all too rare these days unfortunately, but thankfully, they can still be made from the past by reading them. 🙂 My MIL grew up in New York but from the stories she tells, my husband doesn’t want to visit. I’ve learned of New York from books, though have yet to read of Helene’s New York, and do want to visit. I love following and discovering the reading rabbit trails that formed people. 🙂 Thanks for spreading awareness and delight in Helene Hanff!

  9. Ellie says:

    There! Placed 84 on hold, it came in quckly, i read it all in one gulp this afternoon. Just finished; all weepy. Your fault entirely. Thank you very much **sniffle**


  10. Melissa Wiley says:

    Oh Ellie! Now I just want to discuss it with you over a nice cup of tea. I reread it this week too. Bloomsbury (her visit to London in the 70s), then backed up to 84, then leapt forward to Q’s Legacy (a whole life memoir with an emphasis on 84’s effects on her life, and another trip to London), and now back in time to her early days in Underfoot in Show Business. She’s wholly wonderful.

  11. Ellie says:

    I knew the basic story, since i had seen the movie way back when, and I knew he died before she ever got to England, but it crushed me anyhow, reading it. How awfully sad. Gracious.

    For me, discovering the book only now, gosh — it made me think of this blogging life!! The building of a friendship from afar, becoming gradually closer, more personal; sending care packages! Digital, handwritten, typewritten … It’s all just words going heart to heart, betwixt strangers who become friends, the most important friends ….

    Am immersed in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street now, and loving it.

  12. Leah H says:

    Finally got around to ordering 84, Charing Cross Road. It came today, and I curled up in what our family calls “the circle chair” and read the entire thing. It’s wonderful! So many funny parts.

    I especially loved this on page 73: “I am starting with a script about 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.”

    I am curious about her remarks about using a fruit knife as a “page cutter” on page 79. What is that? Did she cut the pages of her books on purpose?! I’m just wondering what that’s all about.

    I ACHE for that copy of Pride and Prejudice that she got! Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a museum where we could go and look at her library? The very books she got from the book shop?

    Anyway, I want to thank you for the recommendation. My life is so much richer for having known you!

  13. Melissa Wiley says:

    Leah, some of the books Frank sent her were so old (and yet evidently had never been read) that the pages hadn’t been cut yet. Books are printed on huge sheets of paper that have 16* pages of text on them (8 on each side) in a certain order so that when folded, the pages are in the correct order. But you have to cut the edges at some of the folds. (Fold up a piece of paper into a booklet and try to turn the pages–you’ll see what I mean.) In modern printing, the folded sections (each one is called a signature) are stacked up and the edges are lopped off with a giant paper cutter. Then the signatures are bound together.

    In older printing, the signatures would be stacked and bound but the folded edges were left uncut. When you bought a new book, you read with your paper knife in hand, to slice the pages at those edges so you could turn them! Helene doesn’t have a proper paper knife so she’s using a kitchen knife. What a pain, eh?

    So happy you enjoyed it. I too love her sense of humor. I imagine her letters livened up that quiet bookshop office tremendously.

    *Or 8 or 12 or 32.

  14. Leah H says:

    Yes, that would be a pain. But also exhilarating to be the first person to turn the pages of a special book… Thank you for explaining that to me!

  15. Melanie B says:

    I bought a couple of books with uncut pages at a used bookstore in Boston. I think I bought them precisely because the pages were uncut and I was so delighted to find them in person. I’ve never read them– I couldn’t bring myself to actually cut the pages and they weren’t ones I was dying to read immediately. Perhaps someday.

    Oh her rabbit trail with Q’s lectures was so delightful. I love that she had the time and patience to follow all those leads.