Friday, September 25, 2009

Book Review - Helene Hanff's The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff
Published by: Lippincott
Publication Date: 1973
Format: Hardcover, 137 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
Out of Print

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is Helene Hanff's followup to the popular 84, Charing Cross Road. This book though is not a continuation or a building on of the twenty years of correspondences between Helene and Marks & Co. but a look into what the writing of 84, Charing Cross Road brought to Helene's life. Due to the popularity of the book, Helene, while not becoming exceedingly famous or wealthy, developed a sort of cult following which enabled her to go to England to promote her book. Her long dreamed of sojourn to England was made possible by this little book and in return we are blessed with another, her diary of the trip. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, the title Helene bequeaths to herself, is just as sweet and engaging as the original, but with a little more structure due to the day by day progression without long periods of time missing, which so annoyed me in 84, Charing Cross Road. We follow Helene's journey across the ocean to a world populated by people who's lives were touched by her book. From Frank Doel's widow and daughter, to a Colonel, to a portrait painter, to a famous actress, to an old Etonian, all these people populate her time in England, from sightseeing to dinners (because the fewer dinners she has to pay for herself, the longer she can stay in England.)

After the publication of 84, Charing Cross Road Helene was literally besieged by people saying she must go to England now. But in the book you had sense of hesitation on Helene's part. Whether it was just her fear of travel or the country not living up to her expectations she kept putting off the trip, and at the end of the book you felt that perhaps she had waited too long, ending on a bittersweet note. But Duchess is not in the least bittersweet, euphoric would be the word Helene would use. She realizes, that while people keep telling her that she's about 15 years too late, she isn't. There is still Donne's St. Paul's, Shakepeare's local ale house, even Dicken's London (even if she isn't really a fan). Everything is as she had pictured it in the books she had read. And while she regrets not being as well read as others, being a re-reader to the point of memorization, she would not change it because of the words that flow into her as she enters St. Paul's from Walton's Lives. Having "the whole lovely passage right there in my head" and "for at least that moment, I wouldn't have traded the hundreds of books I've never read for the handful I know almost by heart."

Despite being a middle aged women having just undergone a hysterectomy, she is like a kid in a candy store. Everything is perfect and just as she always wished it to be. Her dreams were literally coming true and you have a desperate urge to just take her book and get on the next plane to see if thirty years later it is the same as when she left. From Russell Square to Hyde Park, Helene revels in her one shot of glory that has enabled her to live her dream. Even if, at times, she does seem a bit of a leech. Whatever she can get out of others in order to stay a day longer she accepts, mainly in the form of food. Of course England seems enamored of her as well as she of it, and they view her presence as enough, either at book signings or on the radio. When Helene runs into an old friend who is as baffled as she is as to England's love of her, she has a strong desire to tell her that the fairy tale will soon be over and Cinderella will go home, to the old jeans and gin while typing away at her 2nd Avenue apartment.

In the end the book is almost like a dream of England come to life, as Helene remarks on the plane, "suddenly it was as if everything had vanished: Bloomsbury and Regent's Park and Russell Square and Rutland Gate. None of it had happened, none of it was real. Even the people weren't real. It was all imagined, they were all phantoms." But even if Helene could not believe her good fortune, you will enjoy reading her exploits, even if they seemed improbable to the author they are a wonderful dream you hope you won't wake from. The book ends appropriately with a quote from Shakespeare's The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors
....were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air...
The Cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples...dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on...


You know, I saw the movie once some years ago, which I liked. I had no idea that it was based on a book or that it was a true story. Shame one me! Now I must read both books. Did you ever see the movie? Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.

Thank you for your great review. The book sounds good.

Yes Stephanie, years ago I saw the movie, I remember liking it, it was a long time ago, in fact the hardcover re-release of 84, Charing Cross Road has the introduction written by Anne Bancroft. Talk about funny, a book made into a movie and then re-published with the actress who played the author's comments.


I just wanted to welcome you to Blog With Bite and encourage you to sign up to review the next title if you haven't already!

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