She finally made it

A review of The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

A while back I read and loved 84, Charing Cross Road, a collection of letters between the witty and wonderful Helene Hanff and the staff of a London bookshop.  Several times during the decades spanned by the book, Helene planned to visit London, but each time she was thwarted.  Eventually, however, her dream came true and she set off for the land of Shakespeare on a tour combining publicity and pleasure.  Sadly, her primary correspondent, Frank Doel, passed away before Helene was able to make the trip, but she was met at the airport by his widow, Nora, and daughter, Sheila.

Helene feels so welcomed and admired in London that she takes to calling herself "The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street."  It was sweet and spooky to read about her meeting strangers - fans of her book who'd written to her, offering their services, inviting her out to meals and into their homes.  For several chapters I feared it would turn into a cautionary tale for single female visitors to foreign lands.  But Helene's luck held; no one dipped her into a scalding vat of tea or smothered her in tweed.

As she so hoped it would, London enchants Helene.  She writes of its bustling but comparatively quiet (to NYC) streets, "Even the sirens are quiet.  The ambulance sirens go BlooOOP, blooOop, like a walrus weeping under water."  While she's there, she finally gets to visit the now-closed Marks & Co. book shop.  "I started back downstairs, my mind on the man, now dead, with whom I'd corresponded for so many years.  Halfway down I put my hand on the oak railing and said to him silently: 'How about this Frankie, I finally made it.'"


I just read finished this also, inspired by Citizen Reader's Helen Hanff fest of some time back. What I love about Hanff's writing is the way her personality always carries the work. She's full of joy to finally be in London but she's also such a smarty pants and unwilling to be pushed around just to be polite. Love that combination of heart and chutzpah.

How about that, Helene, you finally made it. A great writer like Helene should have made enough money to go to London whenever she wanted, not just this once. There is no fairness in the world.