I still find it hard to believe that it’s taken me so many years to finally get round to reading “84 Charing Cross Road”. However, having done so (plus the follow-up, “The Duchess of Bloomsbury”) I now consider myself a fully fledged Hanff fan. So I was pleased to fling myself into this book (I’m still doing flinging reads rather than thinking for hours about what to pick up next), which is more autobiography – kind of filling in the gaps that came before, during and after those other books.
Q, of course, is Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, of whom Wikipedia says: “Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (21 November 1863 – 12 May 1944) was a British writer who published under the pen name of Q. He is primarily remembered for the monumental Oxford Book Of English Verse 1250–1900 (later extended to 1918), and for his literary criticism. He guided the taste of many who never met him, including American writer Helene Hanff, author of 84, Charing Cross Road and its sequel, Q’s Legacy; and the fictional Horace Rumpole, via John Mortimer, his literary amanuensis.” He was, of course, the impetus behind Hanff’s initial contact with Marks and Co., the Charing Cross Road booksellers who provided her books; his volumes inspired her love of literature and here she relates those initial discoveries, from her younger days, through struggling to earn a living in the world of the theatre. switching to writing books and articles and finally making good with “84”. Hanff also goes on the relate the aftermath of its success, how it was turned into a play and further adventures visiting England.
“Q’s Legacy” is a delight: just as enjoyable and easy to read as “84”, packed full of life, books and anecdotes, and very funny. Hanff is an endearing storyteller, self-deprecating and very genuine in her surprise that others should rate her work so highly. What’s appealing is her humanity: we can relate to her as an ordinary woman, dealing with the everyday hassles of life – from accommodation issues to panicking about cataract operations. Her wit is very dry and the sequence where she stays in the London home of publisher Andre Deutsch’s mother, and the reaction to the place, is hilarious.
One of the loveliest sections is where she writes about her fans. Hanff seems rather surprised to receive letters, phone calls and even visits from her readers, unaware of how her book has touched people. She’s such a conscientious person that she answers the letters, signs the books and sends them on, and seems to be quite happy to accommodate her public as much as she can!
Hanff was obviously a warm, intelligent woman with a great love of English literature, and walking down Charing Cross Road recently I lamented the changes to the street and the loss of so many of the bookshops. This book transported me back to a time when it was still possible for many book stores to co-exist happily and have plenty of clientele. The completist in me has sent off for a copy of the book of Hanff’s BBC talks and I’m really looking forward to it!
(As an aside, I was curious to hear what Hanff sounded like, so I was delighted to find that her Desert Island Discs appearance is available to listen to online here – I only wish her BBC talks were still out there!)