Literature │ The Ghosts of London
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
“London, happily, is becoming full of great men’s houses, bought for the nation and preserved entire with the chairs they sat on and the cups they drank from, their umbrellas and their chests of drawers…it is no frivolous curiosity that sends us to Dickens house and Johnson’s house and Carlyle’s house and Keats’s house. We know from their houses- it would seem to be a fact that writers stamp themselves upon their possessions more indelibly than other people.” The London Scene: “Great Men’s Houses” by Virginia Woolf.
What is it that makes us traipse around the country, the world just to see and absorb a snippet of the life of a writer or an artist that we love so? What do we expect to find? The majority of us have done this. I am guilty of this very act; I have found myself dragging people all the way out to the countryside to visit Virginia’s old house, as well as her sisters. Just as Woolf wrote above, we long to find a piece of the writer by looking at their surroundings; their views of inspiration, the way they ate, the way that they imprinted their lives upon their furniture and so on. In a very deep and meaningful way, we are looking for them.
Of course, I have digressed ever so slightly from the book at hand, a book which left a deep impact upon my soul, as it spoke to both the reader and writer within me, with the greatest sentimental notes that it conjured up. 84 Charing Cross Road is really a beautiful love story between Helene Hanff and literature. The novel is split into two very separate segments; the first part conveys the way in which she strikes up a beautiful relationship with a bookshop in London, from New York which continues year after year. She is witty, pushy, caring with a burning love for literature. Helene befriends all that work at Marks & Co., Booksellers, and becomes involved in their lives. She sends the workforce and their family’s food packages and stockings, as England is currently living on rations. Each year Helene tries to save up enough money to visit her friends at the book shop and the many places that her treasured writers lived and haunted, but each year a crisis crops up, and she has to put off the trip once more.
The second half moves away from letter writing to diary entries. Helene is much older, her famous book shop has closed, and she has published her letters and formed them into a book. Most importantly, she has finally made it to her beloved London. Many changes have occurred; people have died, but friendliness and love remains strong from the families and friends of Marks & Co. who remember her kindness during those difficult years. Helene finds London to be everything she dreamed of; from the skyline to earth, she finds herself believing that she should have been born a Londoner.
This is one that remains with you, in your mind and heart. In fact, all those strings that stand suspended in the heart are gently tugged at and remain in motion throughout one of the most pleasurable reads that I have experienced for a long time. It is a small book, without complicated words and puppetry that one may find in certain works of fiction, but rich in everything that matters.