What I’m reading: Helene Hanff

September 16, 2017 @ 1:22 pm | Filed under:

Yes, again.

As I head into the home stretch of radiation (only three treatments to go!!), I’m feeling pretty wiped. I’m like a phone that won’t hold a charge for long anymore. But I know the end is in sight and I’m trying to be good and take it easy. Still working, because I gotta. But the rest of the day is for rest and reading.

Earlier this week I was chatting with Naomi Bulger about our shared love of Helene Hanff. 84 Charing Cross Road is one of my favorite books of all time, and Hanff’s other books are way up there too. Of course the conversation made me want to reread everything, and that’s how I spent yesterday afternoon.

I’ve blogged a lot about why I love Helene Hanff’s books so much. The first one I encountered was her Letter from New York, which I read just before I moved to NYC. I carried it all over the city, seeking out the places Helene described. (Here’s a post all about it: How Radio Helped a Garden Grow.)

She really shaped my understanding and experience of Manhattan, and I was stunned to realize, many years later, that at that very time in the mid-90s, Helene was still living in the 72nd St apartment she moved to during 84 Charing Cross Road—just a block from Scott’s first NYC studio! I could have visited her!

I often wonder what happened to her personal book collection, and to the NY Public Library books she (according to her letters) filled with margin notes. Oh to stumble upon one of those!

“I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to ‘I hate to read new books, and I hollered ‘Comrade!’ to whoever owned it before me.”

84 Charing Cross Road

“It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on.”

84 Charing Cross Road

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.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

“My problem is that while other people are reading fifty books I’m reading one book fifty times. I only stop when at the bottom of page 20, say, I realize I can recite pages 21 and 22 from memory. Then I put the book away for a few years.”

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

“I tell you, life is extraordinary. A few years ago I couldn’t write anything or sell anything, I’d passed the age where you know all the returns are in, I’d had my chance and done my best and failed. And how was I to know the miracle waiting to happen round the corner in late middle age? 84, Charing Cross Road was no best seller, you understand; it didn’t make me rich or famous. It just got me hundreds of letters and phone calls from people I never knew existed; it got me wonderful reviews; it restored a self-confidence and self-esteem I’d lost somewhere along the way, God knows how many years ago. It brought me to England. It changed my life.”

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

“Somewhere along the way I came upon a mews with a small sign on the entrance gate addressed to the passing world. The sign orders flatly:


The more you stare at that, the more territory it covers. From dirtying the streets to housebreaking to invading Viet Nam, that covers all the territory there is.”

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street


Related posts:

Books That Make Me Want to Write Letters (84 Charing Cross Road)

“Wait here.” (The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street)

How Radio Helped a Garden Grow (Letter from New York)


My 2014 booknotes on Underfoot in Show Business:
Am now bereft: it was the last (well, the first for her, but the last for me) of Helene’s memoirs. I wish she’d written five more. The tales in this one: so rich! That first summer she spends at the artist’s colony—sitting down at the desk in her quiet studio and seeing Thornton Wilder’s name written on the plaque listing all the previous occupants of this cabin. He’d stayed there in 1937; she realizes he’d written Our Town in this very spot. For a moment it throws her—I completely understood that wave of comparative despair—until she registers that in the long list of writers under Wilder, there’s no one she ever heard of. This makes her feel better, and then she’s able to work.

And the early story about how she gets to NYC in the first place—winning a fellowship for promising young playwrights. Late 30s, the second year of the award. In the first year, the two winners were given $1500 apiece and sent out to make their way in the world. In Helene’s year, the TheatreGuild decides to bring the three fellowship winners (Helene is the youngest, and the only female) to New York to attend a year-long seminar along with some other hopeful playwrights. The $1500 prize pays her expenses during this year of what sounded very similar to a modern MFA program, minus the university affiliation: classes with big-name producers, directors, and playwrights. Lee Strasberg! An unprecedented opportunity for these twelve young seminar attendees. And the fruit of this careful nurturing? Helene, chronicling the story decades later, rattles off the eventual career paths of the students: there’s a doctor, a short-story writer, a TV critic, a couple of English professors, a handful of screenwriters.

“The Theatre Guild, convinced that fledgling playwrights need training as well as money, exhausted itself training twelve of us—and not one of the twelve ever became a Broadway playwright.

“The two fellowship winners who, the previous year, had been given $1500 and sent wandering off on their own were Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.”

I laughed my head off when I read that.

    Related Posts


11 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Penelope says:

    Commit no nuisance — oh my gosh. Fabulous.

    {{hugs}} my friend. Holding you in my prayers, thinking of you so often.

    • Melissa Wiley says:

      Right? I want it in needlepoint, framed. —Except, these days I feel more and more that there are times it’s important to commit certain nuisances, loudly and often! (See: healthcare.)

      Thanks for the well wishes, my dear. You’re on my mind, too.

  2. Anne says:

    Years ago when in London as a teen, I went to 84 Charing Cross Rd. and was devastated to find out it had become a Burger King. I didn’t expect a bookstore, but seriously? Burger King? I wonder what it is now.

    I see from your 2017 you’re reading through Josephine Tey. You missed my favorites, Daughter of Time and Brat Farrar, but maybe you’ve already read those, or they will be next. I’d love to read a blog post on Tey! When she’s good she’s very, very good.

    • Melissa Wiley says:

      Burger King! Ouch.

      The Daughter of Time was the first Tey I ever read, and until this year, my only Tey! (At least, I think so. I began Miss Pym Disposes last night. The opening chapters are familiar. Did I start and not finish? Did I finish and forget?? Stay tuned as this story develops.) 😉

      Here’s a post I wrote about Daughter of Time (SUCH a book. SUCH A BOOK!!!) 8 years ago (!): https://melissawiley.com/blog/2009/04/19/mid-april-reading-notes-tey-and-collins/

      Excerpt: “The real magic of this novel is the gradual unraveling of the ancient mystery, the poking through old letters and town records to get at the truth. (Grant ropes in a volunteer to do the leg work, and here I felt a sharp stab of deja vu, because that’s exactly how I managed the research for Little House in the Highlands. Jane was stuck in the hospital, getting chemo, and I had a researcher in Edinburgh who would take my daily battery of questions and go look up the answers for me, and then she’d send me sheaves of articles and impenetrable scholarly documents to pore through at night beside my baby’s hospital bed. So Grant’s fascination, his obsession really, rang very true to me. There’s nothing like a treasure hunt to get you through long days and nights in a hospital.)”

  3. Nancy says:

    Thanks for the highlight reel of Hanff. Wait here. I’ve got some books to fetch! 😉

  4. Jen Robinson says:

    Glad you are resting and reading as much as you can, Lissa. Thanks for sharing some reading highlights with us!

  5. Kirstyn says:

    LOVED Tey’s works!

    I have never heard of Helen Hanff, but after this post I promptly set off in search of 84 Charing Cross and hope to love it.

    On a side note, I assume but have to verify (I’m a relatively recent reader to your blog)…are you a fan of Dorothy Sayers? Seems like you would be, if you enjoyed Q’s Legacy. Those books are so much smarter than I, but I still love them. The existing but rare companions for reading them are next to impossible to find, and the online one is frustrating, IMO…but one must keep reading Sayers.

    • Kirstyn says:

      Am now just about halfway through 84 Charing Cross Road and I have been guilty of laughing out loud several times now. What a fabulous read! Can’t wait to track down all of Hanff’s other works. Thank you for the glowing recommendation and review that convinced me to give her a try!

  6. Susanne Barrett says:

    I loved 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. I have yet to read Q–I think I”ll pop it on my shortlist of books to be read.

    When we feel ill, it’s always extra-comforting to return to beloved books. They wrap their pages around us and settle us in for a gentle trip to somewhere familiar, somewhere we know and are known. A cup of hot tea, a warm afghan to snuggle into, and a well-read “bookfriend,” complete with dog-eared pages and notes written in the margins–these are our “comfort foods” for mind, soul, and spirit.

    Take care, Melissa!! Be well!!

    Susanne 🙂

  7. Kathie says:

    My late MIL introduced me to Helene Hanff about 25 years ago and I fell in love with her writing. I managed to get my hands on all of her books (I think she wrote just five). When my MIL passed away and we were sorting through her possessions, I picked up second copies of several of the books. There is also a movie of 84, Charing Cross Road; it’s quite good. It’s nice to know that there are other people out there enjoying Helene!

  8. Tabatha says:

    Thank you for the sumptuous post! I love “Wait here” so much. I had to read the part about Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller aloud to my older daughter (who was just saying that Tennessee Williams is her favorite playwright).
    I wish you didn’t have to worry about healthcare while you’re exhausted! I hope you can take a break from that now (has a stake been driven through its heart yet?).