Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, 'Q', never knew Helene Hanff. He died in 1944 when she was 28, a young Jewish woman born in 1916 and brought up during the Depression in Philadelphia, USA. However, Q had already had a profound influence upon her and was to be the catalyst for her enormous success with 84 Charing Cross Road, a volume of letters, which projected her to fame in the 1970s. 84 Charing Cross Road was published by Dick Grossman of New York. Grossman Publishers specialized in what Helene Hanff described as 'slim, offbeat volumes – Ben Shahn, a new translation of Catullus, James Lipton's An Exultation of Larks' (Hanff, 1986, p.29) for a small, select readership, and so not expected to sell many copies; however, 84 Charing Cross Road rapidly became a 'cult' book and was bought for reprint by Reader's Digest. This study is not a biography of Helene Hanff: her own books form a complete autobiography, except for personal details about which she was always reticent; it is, rather, an examination of the effect which Q's writings had on her life and writing career and which she acknowledged in her 1985 book, Q's Legacy.
In March 1978, Helene Hanff received a letter from Muriel Brittain who wrote: 'I am the widow of Frederic Brittain, biographer of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch . . . If you ever come to Cambridge I'll give you tea in Q's room and biscuits from his tobacco jar'. It was this letter which decided Hanff that she must visit Britain again, in spite of the cost. She was often short of funds but this time had the offer of free use of a flat belonging to the mother of André Deutsch, the publisher, in St John's Wood (Hanff, 1986, pp. 64-66).
Hanff's first and long-awaited visit to Britain in 1971 became the subject of her book The Duchess of Bloomsbury. During this trip she had visited Trinity College, Oxford, where Q was educated but she found it a frustrating experience. As she put it herself 'on the one shining day of my life when I was actually in Oxford I'm dragged down the main street, I'm having every monument and church pointed out to me, they're all by Wren (everything's by Wren)' and was shown everything except the places she was burning to see: Oriel where Cardinal Newman had taught Anglican theology and Trinity where he, John Donne and Q had all been undergraduates. Hanff finally made her wishes felt and at Oriel 'sat in the chapel by myself and communed with John Henry', and walked round the quadrangle at Trinity.
Unless you're interested chiefly in the architecture, visiting Oxford is very frustrating. All that is open to tourists at any college is the yard outside it and the chapel just inside the front door. Everything else is off limits, So I'll never see those freshman's rooms and I'll never know whether there is still "much snap-dragon" growing outside the window as there was in Newman's day. And I'll never see the rooms Milton wrote in or the rooms Q taught in at Cambridge because Cambridge has the same restrictions (The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, pp. 165-166).
However, Muriel Brittain promised Hanff this opportunity. The visit to Jesus College was everything Hanff had hoped. They had lunch in Hall under...
...a vaulted ceiling with immensely thick oak beams, and three dining tables that ran the length of the room, one along each side wall and one down the middle of the room, each with a long bench instead of chairs. . . At the front of the room, running the width of it, was the High Table for the "Fellows", and Muriel pointed to the two huge framed portraits on the wall above it. One was of Henry VIII, the other of Thomas Cranmer. "Cranmer was an undergraduate at Jesus a few years after it opened," she said. "And then he was elected a Fellow".
Muriel Brittain explained, on the way to Q's rooms, that the full name of Jesus College was actually 'The Ancient and Religious Foundation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the Glorious Virgin St Radegund' and was originally a Benedictine Convent, and, in answer to a question from Hanff about the difference between 'dons' and 'fellows' that the teaching staff were all dons but had no rooms of their own until they were elected a fellow by the fellows of their college: 'Then he gets a home here, but only for himself. There are no rooms for his family'.
Hanff was made to sit in Q's own armchair whilst Muriel Brittain brought in the tea tray and Q's tobacco jar. Hanff wrote:
"I've read stories," I said, "about how much he resented women in his classes when they were first admitted to Jesus."
And Muriel said with energy:
"That's all nonsense, I don't know who started that story! He was as kind and generous to women undergraduates as he was to everybody else" (Hanff, 1986, pp. 104-107).
The famous cartoon 'Gentlemen' published in The Cambridge Magazine on 2 May 1914, which depicts Q addressing a lecture hall comprised almost entirely of females as 'Gentlemen', was probably partly responsible for his reputation for misogyny. F. Brittain, his biographer, and one of the people who knew him best, confirms that it was this practice which first gave rise to the legend. He states:
If it had been so, he could have refused admission to all women other than the members of Girton and Newnham Colleges, but he did nothing of the kind. On the contrary, he admitted everyone who cared to attend, whether they were men or women, and he frequently did this against the wishes of the administrative staff of the University, whose duty it was to see that outsiders did not attend lectures without special permission. He also admitted women as freely as men to his informal evening discussions [which he was not obliged to do].
Brittain goes on to explain that Q used the formal address 'Gentlemen' because in theory he was lecturing to members of the University, of which the womens' colleges were not legally members. Q was always correct and formal on these occasions (Brittain, 1947, pp. 65-66).
Resistance to the inclusion of women as members of Cambridge University continued to be strong even after the First World War. The womens' colleges of Girton and Newnham had been established by 1871 but women had had to negotiate the right to take Tripos examinations until 1881, when a general permission was granted. Several attempts were made to secure to women the title of their degrees – they could take the examinations but were not allowed to describe themselves as Bachelor of Arts – but these were violently rejected by male undergraduates. It was not until 1921 that the Senate granted women this right, and even then, in spite of the immense contribution of women to the war effort, male objectors rioted causing thousands of pounds worth of damage.
Between the wars women became university lecturers at Cambridge, and in 1938 Dorothy Garrod became the first woman to hold a professorial chair at either Oxford or Cambridge, but they were still not admitted as full members of the university: they were unable to speak or vote and had no say in the affairs of their own department. This privilege was finally granted in 1948, but the University retained its powers to limit their numbers until 1981! Q was in in a minority in his liberal attitude to women.
When his eyesight deteriorated, Q employed a female assistant: Winifred Hutchinson. She was no mere secretarial assistant, however, but a Fellow of Newnham, a classicist, translator and writer on her own account. She published several volumes aimed at young readers retelling Greek myths; revised the edition of Melmoth's translation of Pliny' s Letters for the Loeb Classical Library; and wrote peer reviews for the magazine Classical Review, amongst other works. Hutchinson was very well read and of enormous assistance to Q in the production of The Oxford Book of English Prose. He had great respect for her ability and maintained a warm correspondence with her after her own eyesight failed and she was unable to work, until her death in 1937.
Q believed in the importance of education for all and spent 25 years helping to achieve this aim in Cornwall, as a member of the Education Committee and, in his preface to the Education Week Handbook in Cornwall of 1927, celebrating 25 years since the passing of the 1902 Balfour Education Act, he specifically mentions both boys and girls.
Hanff's parents could not afford to send her to college: her only hope was to obtain a scholarship but her high-school grades were not good enough for one of the prestigious scholarships and she ended up with a one year scholarship to Temple University. However, when her scholarship was not extended beyond the initial year, she felt, she wrote, secretly relieved: 'In my year at Temple I'd learned nothing about English Literature or the art of writing, which was all I wanted to learn' (Hanff, 1986, p. 3)
Hanff decided self-education was the way forward. She got a job in a bookshop for the summer but was told business was very slow during that period, and she would have a lot of empty hours to fill. The Saturday before she was due to start work, therefore, Hanff went to the public library to look for college textbooks on English literature. Starting at 'A' she worked her way through the shelves without finding what she needed:
What I wanted was the Best – written in a language I could understand. I hadn't defined "the Best " but I was discovering what it wasn't. Most of the textbooks confined themselves to nineteenth and twentieth century writers, omitting what I'd been taught were the greatest works of English literature: Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible. And all of them were written in learned academic language that was over my head.
Under 'Q' there was only one book: On the Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, M.A. Hanff realised she had finally found what she was looking for: 'If you wanted instruction in how to read and write English, Oxford-and-Cambridge was definitely the Best'.
The bookshop job ended after the summer but Hanff was obliged to earn her own living. An uncle used his influence to obtain a place for her on a short course at a business school at a reduced rate (over which she secretly wept) and during the following two years and a series of office jobs, Q was her guide and mentor in her free time. She saved enough from her wages to buy all five volumes of Q's Cambridge lectures and declares that 'Q was all by himself my college education' (Hanff, 1986, pp. 3-6).
In his discussion on writing good prose, Q quoted from the handbook for schools The King's English two rules: 'Prefer the short word to the long'; and 'Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance'. Q did not agree with second rule, pointing out that there would need to be too many exceptions for it to be a practical rule. In his lecture 'On the Lineage of English Literature', Q argues that, far from based on an Anglo-Saxon heritage...
...I shall attempt to heap proof on you that whatever the agency – whether through Wyat or Spenser, Marlowe or Shakespeare, or Donne, or Milton, or Dryden, or Pope or Johnson, or even Wordsworth – always our literature has obeyed, however unconsciously, the precept Antiquam exquirite matrem, "Seek back to the Ancient Mother"; always it has recreated itself, has kept itself pure and strong, by harking back to bathe in those native – yes native – Mediterranean springs (Quiller-Couch, 1943, p. 26).
He proposes that to find the lineage of English Literature you have to go back to the Mediterranean because 'in those languages man first learnt to discuss his "why" and "how" and these languages yet guard their vocabulary'. On the Art of Writing brought home to Hanff the shortcomings of her own education with regard to studying English literature. Q 'assumed that his students – including me – had read Paradise Lost and would understand his analysis of the 'Invocation to Light ' in Book 9.' Hanff hadn't and went back to the library to borrow a copy. Q taught male undergraduates who had all been through an English public school education based on the classical curriculum, and who were familiar with classical and biblical allusions, whereas Hanff was Jewish:
...in Paradise Lost I ran into Satan, Lucifer, the Infernal Serpent and a Fiend . . . none of whom my teachers at the Rodeph Shalom Sunday School had ever mentioned to me. . . I would have to look in the New Testament for them. . . Q would have to wait while I read that one too (Hanff, 1986, p.5).
Hanff then found on page four or five of the lecture that the point of the sentence at the top of the page was in Latin and the long quotation at the bottom was in Greek.
So I advertised in the Saturday Review for someone 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 not in the New Testament, it's in the Apocrypha, which is a set of books nobody thought to tell me existed. . . what with one thing and another it took me eleven years to get through Q's five books of lectures (Hanff, 2010, pp.142-143).
In his preface to On the Art of Writing Q argues that: 'Literature is not a mere Science, to be studied, but an Art to be practised. Great as is our own literature, we must consider it as a legacy to be improved'; and in the lecture 'The Practice of Writing' he says: 'By all means let us study the great writers of the past for their own sake; but let us study them for our guidance that we, in our turn, having (it is to be hoped) something to say in our span of time, say it worthily' (Quiller-Couch, 1921, pp. 26-27). He encouraged his undergraduates to write both prose and verse. Hanff knew from the beginning that she did not just want to study English Literature but above all to write and that what she really wanted to write were plays.
Hanff had had a passion for the theatre since she was a child. Her parents had very little money for luxuries but the whole family went to the theatre on Mondays, saving the programmes in a special album and rating the productions from 'E' for Excellent to 'R' for Rotten. Hanff joined Little Theatre as an actress and began writing plays. She won a national playwriting competition sponsored by the Theatre Guild, at the end of the 1930s, which awarded her a year studying in a seminar for young playwrights at the Guild in New York. She was then given a job writing publicity stories in the Guild press department. She had to write feature stories about the stars of Guild shows for the press agent to place in the New York daily newspapers and, if the 'star' was an unknown, Hanff was allowed to do the interview alone.
The Guild closed down for three months every summer, moving to its summer venue at Westport, Connecticut, and Hanff had to find other work in the interim to pay her living expenses. However, it gave her the leisure to continue her 'classes' with Q: 'guiltily wallowing in Walton and George Herbert and Leigh Hunt when I was supposed to be studying Ibsen, Chekhov and Stanislavski' (Hanff, 1986. p.9). She worked her way through the Cambridge lectures, reading works which Q discussed.
After leaving the Guild, Hanff began to earn a living part-time and at home read scripts - plays and novels – submitted to the New York Story Department of Paramount Pictures, and typed up reports on what she had read. It was steady work, enabling her to sign a lease on a bedsit, instead of living in a cheap hotel room. It also gave her enough time to do what she really wanted to do: write plays.
In her obituary James Roose-Evans, founder of the Hampstead Theatre, who adapted 84 Charing Cross Road for the stage, wrote that: 'Perhaps the central irony of that life is that having always dreamed of being a playwright the only thing of hers that was staged was an adaptation of her book '(Roose-Evans, 1997). Hanff later turned the story of her struggles in show business into Underfoot in Show Business in which she wrote that only one in a 1000 budding playwrights would be successful, and she dedicated her book to the other 999 of which she was one.
Shortly after her move to a bedsit, Hanff read a short obituary of Q in the New York Times , 'Quiller-Couch, Anthologist Dies at 80.' She thought that the obituary writer seemed to regard the Oxford Book of English Verse as Q's principal achievement, so added that to her book list. She felt 'suddenly lost with Q gone. Till I looked at the books of his lectures ranged on the bookshelf and thought "He's not gone, you nut, you have him in the house". . . Then I set out to buy the books he had taught me to love (Hanff, 1986, pp.9-10).
The building where Hanff had her bedsit was to be remodelled and the tenants were all given notice to quit, so the next couple of years meant a nomadic existence as Hanff tried to find other permanent accommodation for herself and her collection of books. Q had not only directed her studies, he had turned her into a bibliophile. She not only wanted the books mentioned in Q's lectures – she also wanted them in decent editions. She saw an advertisement in the Saturday Review for Literature for 'Marks & Co., Antiquarian Booksellers, 84 Charing Cross Road, London WC2'. London had held a special glamour for her since she was a child and her parents started taking her to the theatre: 'London was The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Berkeley Square and Pygmalion'. Her studies with Q added another dimension:
Q brought English literature into my life and my passion for London grew. Sam Pepys' London might be gone but Leigh Hunt's was still there. I wanted to take the walks he took at night. I wanted to stand on Westminster Bridge and look at the view, because Wordsworth said that Earth had not anything to show more fair. But it was all day-dreaming. Between my hand-to-mouth income and my fear of travel, I never really expected to see London. Staring at that ad, I thought it would be a lovely consolation prize to hold in my hands books that actually came from there...
...I was between plays that fall. If you're a writer with nothing in the typewriter and time on your hands, you write something – anything – just to keep from going crazy. I wrote long goofy letters to Marks & Co. (Hanff, 1986, p.12).
Hanff lived a precarious existence financially, which improved during the 1950s when she broke into television, writing dramatic scripts, and by the end of the decade had a solid bank balance and regular, well-paid work, enabling her to buy a small apartment. From the first two books sent by Marks & Co. 'old mellow leather bound books with thick cream coloured pages', her collection had grown. She spent the first evening in her new flat contemplating the new walnut-stained bookshelves with small cabinet drawers beneath them, which ran the length of the back wall and 'stared at the rows of books looking so proud on their first real bookshelves' (Hanff, 1986, pp.12-14).
The golden years of TV writing came to an end in 1959, when the show Hanff was writing for went off-air. She had been writing what she described in a letter to Marks and Co. as 'arty murders' for Ellery Queen, all set in artistic backgrounds – ballet, opera, concert hall etc. However, television production moved to Hollywood. Hanff stayed in New York and was offered no new assignments. Panic set in as she scoured the job advertisements for writing jobs. Her agent asked if she had any old plays or TV scripts which could be sold to West German television, prompting her to look through the ones which she hadn't incinerated. One was about life backstage at the Theatre Guild. Hanff remembered that one producer had said that it was not a play but might make a good magazine article.
The memory gave Hanff an idea, but misgivings about her ability to write prose. Then:
An old line dropped into my head: " To the writer of good honest prose, these notions are about as useful as wind in the next street." Where had I read that? Oh, Q. He was talking about German literary criticism, if I remembered right. . . Q! How many years had I sweated through his lectures on how to write prose? How many models of English prose had he sent me to that I'd loved for years, including Hunt and Lamb and Hazlitt and what were all their essays but magazine articles reprinted later in books? And I thought I could hear Q remarking that possibly I couldn't write prose, but with the rent coming due every month it might be advisable to try (Hanff, 1986, p.15).
Hanff converted two plays into magazine articles and sold one to Harper's Magazine and the other to the New Yorker. Then she wrote several more articles which she couldn't place anywhere but received an enquiry from Genevieve Young of Harper's Publishers as to whether she had a book in mind. Underfoot in Show Business was the result but failed to sell more than 5,000 copies and went out of print. The 1960s was a difficult period for her, writing short books on American history, for children and reading scripts for United Artists production company.
Taking stock of her life, at the end of the 1960s, Hanff faced a bleak future:
...a failed playwright, a TV writer whose experience in live TV was useless in an age of film, and a writer of children's history books nobody was publishing anymore (Hanff, 1986, p. 24).
Then came another bitter blow: she received a letter from Marks & Co. informing her of the death of Frank Doel, her correspondent of twenty years, who, although they had never met, had become a friend. She had always meant to go to London to meet him but now the chance had been irrevocably lost.
84 Charing Cross Road is nothing more than a volume of all the letters sent between Hanff and Doel, charting Helene Hanff's progress through Q's lectures. In the first letter she asks for Hazlitt's Selected Essays and Robert Louis Stevenson's essays in Virginibus puerisque as well as a New Testament. Marks couldn't get the Vulgate Latin version she requested and Hanff was not impressed with the modern edition – 'they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written' – her letter is an example of her colloquial style which contrasts strongly with the cool, businesslike but increasingly amused tone of the letters from Frank Doel; a contrast which gives 84 Charing Cross Road much of its charm.
Hanff next asks for Landor's Imaginary Conversations, containing a dialogue between Aesop and Rhodope; she asks for Leigh Hunt, John Henry Newman, and a book of love poems - not Keats or Shelley - 'send me poets who can make love without slobbering' – Wyatt or Jonson. In April 1950 she explains that she has a peculiar taste in books 'thanks to a Cambridge professor named Quiller-Couch, known as Q whom I fell over in a library when I was 17'. Marks sends her the Oxford Book of English Verse and offers her a first edition of Newman's Idea of a University for six dollars. Hanff can't wait to get her hands on it:
I keep it on the table with me all day, every now and then I stop typing and reach over and touch it. . .All that gleaming leather and gold stamping and beautiful type belongs in the pine-panelled library of an English country home. . .not . . . a one-room hovel in a broken-down brownstone front (Hanff, 2010, p.17).
Pepys' diary, Quiller-Couch's anthology The Pilgrim's Way, Addison's Sir Roger de Coverley Papers, essays by Chesterfield and Goldsmith, Hilaire Belloc and vocal scores of Bach's St Matthew's Passion and Handel's Messiah were amongst the eclectic collection of items Hanff requested. 'Comfort Ye' from the Messiah and 'Wir setzen uns mit Tränen niede' from the St Matthew Passion were two of her choices when she featured on the BBC's iconic radio show 'Desert Island Discs' on Saturday, 19 December 1981.
Hanff's booklist continued with Walton's Lives and The Compleat Angler. She did not like fiction, writing in Q's Legacy : 'I subscribe to Randall Jarrell's definition of a novel as "a prose narrative that has something wrong with it" (Hanff, 1986, p. 16). However, she was partially converted by Jane Austen and Tristram Shandy. Hanff ordered John Donne, Catullus, De Tocqueville's Journey to America and Plato's Four Socratic Dialogues; Lamb's Essays of Elia, a modern English version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Memoirs of the Duke de Saint-Simon, Virginia Woolf's Common Reader and E.M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady.
In talking of the qualities necessary to good writing, Q mentions perspicuity, propriety and accuracy but most of all persuasiveness which he defines as being, essentially, 'charm' (Quiller-Couch, 1921, p. 42). The letters in 84 Charing Cross Road not only refer to details of the books Hanff wished to acquire but also demonstrate a warmth and humanity which led her (having heard that England was still subject to food rationing) to send food parcels to the staff at Marks & Co., and to develop a personal interest in the people there which was reciprocated. Quite a few of the letters contained personal news about Frank Doel's family and other members of staff. In the letters of 84 Charing Cross Road, the diary entries of The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and the narrative of Q's Legacy, it is the use of the vernacular which gives her writing immediacy and charm. The vernacular voice is better, in Q's opinion, than the kind of prose which attempts to be formal without being polished. Prose writing needs practice and polish, otherwise it can end up sounding like a policeman's notebook ('I was proceeding in a westerly direction. . . '). In all Hanff's writing, what comes through is the author's own voice: what her obituary in the Guardian of April 11th 1997 referred to as her 'dark brown, gin-and-cigarettes telephone voice'.
Anne Bancroft played Hanff in the 1987 film version of 84 Charing Cross Road after her husband bought the film rights for her as a gift; she also wrote the introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of the book which, she says:
...leads us, captivated, down one woman's idiosyncratic path through English Literature; along the way, our enjoyment in sharing her literary education is deepened by the human narrative her letters weave . . . the books desired, located, sent and received are the happy vehicles for much else; conversation, friendship, affection, generosity, wit.
No-one, least of all the author, expected 84 Charing Cross Road to sell: all who read it loved it but it was a book of letters ('letters don't sell'), too short for a book (the original manuscript was only sixty-five pages) and too long for a magazine article. Then Dick Grossman decided to publish it and included all the letters Hanff had left out, stretching it to ninety pages. Glowing reviews followed its publication in September 1970; Reader's Digest bought it for reprint and André Deutsch published the book in London in 1971.
In June 1971, after the death of Frank Doel and the closure of the bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff finally made it to London and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street – a diary of her visit from the 17 June to the 26 July – was the result.
On the first morning of her stay at the Kenilworth Hotel on the corner of Great Russell and Bloomsbury Streets, Hanff looked out at a neat terrace of brick houses:
All my life I've wanted to see London. I used to go to English movies just to look at street with houses like those . . . Sometimes, at home in the evening, reading a casual description of London by Hazlitt or Leigh Hunt, I'd put the book down suddenly, engulfed by a wave of longing that was like homesickness. I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die (Hanff, Duchess, 2010, p. 112).
That same morning, Hanff was interviewed by a reporter from the Evening Standard and photographed in front of the empty premises of Marks & Co. at 84 Charing Cross Road, which Deutsch's had filled with copies of her book for the occasion. They borrowed the key from the shop next door and toured the empty rooms which Hanff had imagined for so long and which, bereft of the presence of shelves of books , Frank Doel and the staff of Marks and Co., made the visit a poignant experience. In Q's Legacy Hanff mentions a dream which she had had of the desolate, empty bookshop and the lines from de la Mare's 'The Listeners' that ran through her head when she woke:
"Tell them I came, and no-one answered,
That I kept my word," he said . . . (Hanff, 1986, p. 60)
Hanff visited Britain several times: in 1971 to promote her book for André Deutsch; in 1975 for the BBC television production; in 1978 in response to Muriel Brittain's invitation; and in 1981 for the opening on the London stage of the dramatized version of 84 Charing Cross Road, at the Ambassadors Theatre. The main purpose of the visits from Hanff's point of view, however, was a personal literary and historical pilgrimage, which she achieved with the help of friends from her days corresponding with Marks & Co. whom she had never actually met before, and through the kindness of strangers who wined and dined her and took her to see places she wanted to see and some she did not, but which her new acquaintances were anxious to show her.
She was met at Heathrow by the 'Colonel', a fan who had written to her offering his services, who whisked her straight past customs and immigration ('Friend of mine!') and delivered her into the hands of Nora and Sheila Doel, Frank Doel's widow and daughter. The Colonel later took her to Stratford-upon-Avon, and to visit the churchyard at Stoke Poges, because Gray's Elegy had been her mother's favourite poem.
A somewhat reluctant Old Etonian called Pat Buckley (a friend of a friend) gave Hanff a tour of London, taking her to the site of the Globe Theatre, and:
...we prowled the dark alleys nearby – Shakespeare's alleys, still there. And Dickens' alleys . . . He took me to a pub called The George. . . "Shakespeare used to come here" I mean, I went through a door Shakespeare once went through. . . and I leaned my head back against a wall Shakespeare's head once touched. It was indescribable.
They saw St Paul's by floodlight and the locking up ceremony at the Tower 'that dread prison' (Hanff, Duchess, 2010, pp. 121-122). Her visit was thereafter punctuated by terse notes from 'P.B.' (e.g. 'Can you be here at twelve noon sharp on Saturday. We are driving down to Windsor and Eton) who, realizing her genuine interest, took her under his wing and organized her itinerary. For the Eton trip he wore his old school tie and was allowed to show Hanff parts of the school not normally open to visitors.
Joyce Grenfell took Hanff to Peter Brook's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Aldwych. Hanff writes:
Peter Brook's production initially a shock, half play, half noisy circus. Mrs G. was immediately entranced . . .Halfway through the second act, I was suddenly moved, and I thought, "I resent it but I love it." Stimulates you to death seeing Shakespeare explode all over a stage like that (Hanff, Duchess, 2010, p.151).
Above all, Hanff wanted to visit Trinity College, Oxford:
There's one suite of freshman's rooms at Trinity College which John Donne, John Henry Newman, and Arthur 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 (Hanff, Duchess, 2010, p.142).
Because of the restrictions on visitors to the colleges, Hanff never did realize this ambition. For Newman, she was forced to content herself with the chapel at Oriel, although, thanks to Muriel Brittain Hanff was able to visit Q's rooms at Jesus College, Cambridge. For John Donne, she went to St Paul's Cathedral:
...and stood there looking up at the domed ceiling and down the broad aisles to the altar, and tried to imagine how Donne felt the night King James sent for him. . . I haven't opened Walton's Lives in ten years, at least; and standing there in John Donne's cathedral, the whole lovely passage was right there in my head:
'When his Majesty sat down he said after his pleasant manner, "Dr Donne, I have invited you to dinner and though you sit not down with me, yet will I carve to you a dish I know you love well. For knowing you love London I do hereby make you Dean of St Paul's and when I have dined, then do you take your beloved dish home with you to your study, say grace there to yourself and much good may it do you." '
John Donne eloped with the daughter of the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower who, enraged, imprisoned them both:
John was in one wing, his bride was in another, and he sent her a note, which is how I know he pronounced his name Dunn, not Donn. The note read:
After Anne's death, Donne had a stone shroud made which he slept beside for twenty years. Hanff describes her awe when she read an inscription on the wall of St Paul's 'There, in front of me hanging on the wall of St Paul's Cathedral, was John Donne's shroud. I touched it' (Hanff, Duchess, 2010, pp. 200-202).
In 'On the Lineage of English Literature', Q wrote of Winchester Cathedral 'where sleep, by the way, two gentle writers, specially beloved, Izaak Walton and Jane Austen' (Quiller-Couch, 1943). In Izaak Walton's alcove Hanff saw the stained glass memorial with the inscription underneath 'The gift of the fisherman of the world':
...the pane I stared longest at was the one with a portrait of Izaak himself. He's sitting reading with his fishing rod, net and creel beside him. And the serenity of his face reminded me of his line about the milkmaid -
"She does not worry about things which will not be".
She continues in her usual caustic fashion:
Considering that he lived from King James I's day, through the beheading of Charles I, then helped an Anglican churchman escape from Lord Protector Cromwell and lived on into the Restoration, he must have spent most of his life not worrying about things which might have happened to him but didn't (Hanff, 1986, pp.90-91).
Hanff came upon Jane Austen's grave and was slightly shaken 'to look down at a spot in a floor and know that Jane lies buried beneath it' but was incensed by the epitaph composed by her family, which made no mention of Jane Austen's achievements as a writer and which could have been the epitaph of anybody's sister. However, the tablet erected at Jane Asuten's home at Chawton, Hampshire 'made up for the family's oversight'. It reads 'JANE AUSTEN, lived here from 1809 to 1817 and hence all her works were sent into the world. Her admirers in this country and in America have united to erect this tablet' (Hanff, 1986, pp. 90-91).
There were some disappointments. Hanff wrote 'the trouble with literary Chelsea is that except for the Carlyle House, none of the literary houses you want to see are open to the public'. She and her companion for the day, Judy Summers, could only stare at Henry James' and Oscar Wilde's houses from the outside, although they did go into the Cadogan Hotel, where Wilde was arrested and where he was urged by the officer to come quietly please because 'this is the Cadogan' (Hanff, 1986, pp. 76-77, 85).
Hanff was enchanted by Carlyle's house which was just as in Robert Tait's painting of the rooms which she remembered from her edition of Jane Carlyle's letters. She was slightly scathing about Carlyle himself who required absolute silence to work:
Jane spent most of her time in the sitting-room; she had to do all her letter-writing, sewing, and meal-planning there because it was the only room where her movements didn't disturb the Genius working upstairs in his study . . . she bribed and threatened the neighbours into selling their noisy poultry and playing their piano only at specified hours (Hanff, 1986, p.77).
Q wrote of the importance of the personal side of literary study:
Literature being so personal a thing, you cannot understand it until you have some personal understanding of the men who wrote it. Donne is Donne, Swift, Swift. . . Carlyle Carlyle. Until you have grasped those men, as men, you cannot grasp their writings (Quiller-Couch, 1920, p.119).
Hanff understood this. She wanted to tread where her favourite writers had trodden, to see what they had seen and imagine their thoughts and feelings. The Sunday Times published an interview with Hanff in the column 'A Day in the Life of' on 29 May 1988 'Helene Hanff, the American writer talks to Sue Fox.' Hanff said:
I still haunt libraries because there are plenty of books I want to read, But I don't necessarily want to own them. Books I love most are diaries and memories. I'm trying a short story by Elizabeth Taylor to see, once more, if I'll like fiction. We all know I won't.
She never understood the English obsession with Dickens, although she did include Dickens' house on Doughty Street in her literary tour of London and was interested to see from the memorabilia that he was a keen amateur actor. A woman at her hotel told Hanff she must go to Middle Temple Hall and see the room where Dickens wrote Great Expectations: 'Doesn't seem the time to tell her I found Great Expectations very boring' (Hanff, Duchess, 2010, p. 182). Hanff liked books about real people.
She also had what Q wrote as being necessary for the appreciation of literature, particularly verse: a sense of beauty. Hanff loved the beauty of language:
Q also introduced me to John Henry Newman...I'm going over to Oriel to sit in John Henry's chapel and tell him I still don't know what he was talking about most of the time but I've got whole pages of the Apologia by heart, and I own a first edition of The idea of a University (Hanff, 2010, Duchess, p.143).
What she loved most about London were the buildings and the Prince Regent became her second favourite monarch after Elizabeth I for the legacy of Regent Street, Carlton House Terrace and all the Nash Terraces, and she called 'Blessings on your far-sighted spendthrift head, Prinny' (Hanff, 1986, p.100).
Two of the people who took Hanff to their hearts and became great friends were Leo Marks, son of Ben Marks of Marks & Co., and his wife Elena Gaussen, a portrait painter. Elena painted Hanff's portrait sitting outside in Russell Square. She also discovered that Hanff hadn't visited any galleries and took her to the National Portrait Gallery where, Hanff wrote:
I amazed myself by going clean out of my mind meeting old friends face-to-face . . . I stared at every face so long we never got out of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We're going back next week for the eighteenth and nineteenth. I am now passionately determined to see everybody (Hanff, Duchess, 2010, pp. 214-215).
Hanff wrote in her autobiography, Q's Legacy that 'the time had come to add up what I owed to Q.' The first thing was a literary education. Q wrote of the burning of books in Alexandria that:
The real tragedy of the library at Alexandria was not that the incendiaries burned immensely, but that they had neither the leisure nor the taste to discriminate (Quiller-Couch, 1943, p. 54).
The problem encountered by any student of English Literature is the sheer volume of material. In his preface to The Oxford Book of English Prose, Q argues that 'no honest scholar can pretend an acquaintance with the whole of English prose', and that is without verse being added to the equation. He says that he read 'pretty widely among the originals for this book, and during five years for its special purpose'. In The Art of Reading, he points out that in the Cambridge History of English Literature the bibliography for the years 1700-1785 alone runs to five or six hundred pages. The Cambridge Lectures, The Oxford Book of English Prose and The Oxford Book of English Verse were Hanff's guide to a literary education and gave her the means both to discriminate and to follow Q's dictum that 'in reading, it is not quantity so much that tells, as quality and thoroughness of digestion'. Hanff knew from the beginning that she wanted the best and knew she had found it when she opened Q's first volume of Cambridge lectures. The two anthologies of verse and prose taught her what was available: Q had, as he put it, 'spread a wide and patient net'.
Secondly, Q taught Hanff how to write good prose. Standing in the public library aged 17 or 18, flicking through On The Art of Writing, Hanff read the lecture 'on jargon' and was surprised:
'He was conveyed to his place of residence in an intoxicated condition.
He was carried home drunk.'
Q said that the first sentence was jargon and that the second was good English prose. I thought is was a misprint; the printer must have got the two sentences backward. I read a little further and came to a quote from a Prime Minister in the House of Commons:
"The answer to the question is in the negative."
"That means No," said Q, "Can you discover it to mean anything more? - except that the speaker is a pompous person, which was no part of the information required".
So it wasn't a misprint. I was shocked. I liked long fancy words. They were literary. (Hanff, 1986, pp.4-5).
Q talks about the trick of 'Elegant Variation': in an essay on Byron he expects numerous references to Byron but 'my undergraduate has a blushing sense that to call Byron Byron twice on one page is indelicate'. So Byron becomes 'that great but unequal poet','the gloomy master of Newstead', and 'the meteroic darling of society'. All that, says Q, is Jargon (Quiller-Couch, 1943, pp. 98-99). Hanff writes that Q 'spoke a language I could understand, and he had a sense of humour, which all by itself set him apart from the rest of the professors I had been reading all morning' (Hanff, 1986, p.5).
Q gave Hanff 'enough training in the craft of writing to have kept myself alive by it through the sixties' (Hanff, 1986, p. 44). She described herself as a 'failed playwright' and that was true in that although some of her scripts were bought by producers, none ever made it to the stage, but she was a successful writer in that she earned a living by writing all her life, starting with press releases for the Theatre Guild, then on to articles for magazines, reports on playscripts for production companies, dramatic scripts for the Ellery Queen crime series on television, training films for the Womens' Army Corps, books on American history for children. Anything, in fact, to pay the rent.
Looking back on the successes which brought her fame, Hanff wrote that she owed Q 'my shelves full of books – and my choice of Marks & Co. over the column of New York bookstores. Wherefore I owed him 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street – and the hundreds if not thousands of friends both books had brought me in the, mail and over the phone'. The reviewers of these two books fell strongly into the 'love 'em' or 'hate 'em' camps but the sheer volume of fan mail spoke for itself (Hanff, 1986, p.44).
Hanff's living room was full of souvenirs from the successes for which Q had been indirectly responsible. Mark Shivas, who had produced The Six Wives of Henry VIII for BBC Television, produced 84 Charing Cross Road for the BBC with what Hanff described as the audacity known as 'chutzpah', in that he chose to present the letters in the form of voice-overs taking the place of dialogue, with the actors performing silently in scenes in Marks & Co.'s bookshop and Hanff's New York apartment, recreated in the television studios. Hanff lent some of her own books for the production and as a gift they were rebound for her by the Queen's bookbinder:
The once-faded green leather binding of my Elizabethan Poets was clear emerald, its gold-tipped pages gleamed, its chewed edges were gone. The cover of my Newman was firmly attached, its deep brown pigskin glowed with a patina it had never had in my lifetime, and the long-faded gold seal shone against it. On all the books old stains were gone, imbedded dust was gone, the covers were fresh and bright again (Hanff, 1986, p. 54).
The television series was bought by PBS which meant that Hanff was able to watch it in America and then James Roose-Evans took the stage version to London, after a successful season at Salisbury. After the curtain fell on 84 Charing Cross Road on the opening night at the Ambassador's, and Hanff had stood on the stage 'blinking in the white glare of the footlights into the total blackness beyond' to rapturous applause from the audience, the cast presented her with a leather-bound copy of 84 with a complete cast list and all their signatures:
The leather-bound 84 seemed to me then, and seems to me now, a fitting memorial to Marks & Co. and Frank Doel and all their vanished kind; and for their sakes I treasure it.
The next day saw an impromptu party in Hanff's hotel suite where people kept arriving with gifts, including from Futura Publishers, a special bottle of gin with a Private Label:
84, Charing Cross Road London
Distilled by Futura Publications
to celebrate the opening of
"84, Charing Cross Road"
at the Ambassador's Theatre
26th November, 1981
(Hanff, 1986,pp. 129, 132)
Sadly and embarrassingly for Hanff, whose friends and family filled many rows of the theatre, the opening in Broadway was a complete flop. As Hanff suspected might happen, it 'didn't travel' and closed after three months. However, the production enjoyed successful provincial seasons all over the English speaking world.
After the success of the books 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Hanff's autobiographical Underfoot in Show Business was reissued; she was in demand for newspaper interviews; appeared on BBC radio's 'Desert Island Discs'; recorded a series for BBC Radio Four's 'Woman's Hour', Letters from New York, some of the scripts of which she later published in book form; and published a book Apple of My Eye which was the diary of a tour of New York made with her friend Patsy, after Hanff had been invited to write the text for a book of photographs of New York but realized that she had never visited many of the places before.
One of her most prized souvenirs was the original shop sign from Marks & Co. which a fan had had permission from the council to remove and which he presented to her, but perhaps her biggest thrill was unveiling the brass plaque marking the site of the original shop Marks & Co. and which read:
CHARING CROSS ROAD
THE BOOKSELLERS MARKS & CO.
WERE ON THIS SITE WHICH
BECAME WORLD RENOWNED
THROUGH THE BOOK BY
(Hanff, 1986, p.126)
It was all, as Hanff acknowledged, 'an awesome legacy for a Cambridge Don to have conferred on a lowly pupil he never knew existed three thousand miles away' (Hanff, 1986, p.44).
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