Book Reviews, Books, Memoir, Writing

Book Review: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff
Published by Moyer Bell on January 1, 1995
Genres: Memoir
Pages: 160
Format: Paperback

New York writer Helen Hanff has corresponded for years with Marks & Co. Booksellers on London’s 84 Charing Cross Road, and they’ve faithfully cared for all her eccentric reading needs. Having developed a touching transatlantic friendship with bookseller Frank Doel and all the good folks at Marks & Co., she’s been issued countless invitations to visit the United Kingdom. In this sequel to 84, Charing Cross Road, Hanff  takes us along on her trip of a lifetime as she explores all the places she’s dreamed of for so long. Feted by friends and admirers alike, she is dubbed the Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.

Imagine my surprise when my copy of 84 Charing Cross Road turned out to be a 2-for-1 special. Tucked away in the back of the book, like a totally unexpected gift, was its sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.  I was over the moon, given I am almost as stingy with a buck as its author Helene Hanff professed to be with book purchases, and I  am happy to say I enjoyed this just as much, if not more than its predecessor. For anyone contemplating a visit to England, The Duchess makes a perfect primer. I’ve been to London several times, and Helen Hanff’s witty tale of her long anticipated dream trip sorely tempts me to hop a plane yet again, this time to follow in her footsteps. Hanff’s style of writing is fun, familiar, and candid, whether it’s about herself, others, or places she sees. Her experiences and descriptions make one long to follow.

Hanff envisions a different kind of trip to England than I would have ever pictured for myself,  and at first blush, it could sound boring –  her wishes are all centered around her love of British literature and literary luminaries. So, while she certainly wants to see Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London, Hanff is also very keen to see the places her idols once haunted. She wants to see Shakespeare’s alleys or the pub he frequented, Dickens’ home, Trinity-Oxford College where John Donne studied, or the Actors’ Church to see Ellen Terry’s ashes. Boring though it might sound at first to some, Hanff’s background info and descriptions are infectious, and her itinerary inviting. What also makes it fun is that Helene Hanff is no snob. She just as easily likes a good pub, a properly made martini, and a cigarette. And if it will save her a buck or two and allow her to extend her stay, she’ll dine with anyone who’s picking up the tab.

Peppered throughout the diary are her observations on the people she meets. With her first book being a modest success, she’s a bit of a celebrity and many want to make her acquaintance. Whether it’s the Colonel, a faithful fan who meets her at the airport with flowers and offers to take her sightseeing, or P.B., a rather brusk friend of a friend, who seems not so keen to make her acquaintance, Hanff gives colorful accounts of her encounters that leave the reader either shaking their head or laughing out loud.

After reading 84, Charing Cross Road, it was a delight to see Helene Hanff  finally take London by storm. I reveled in happiness for her dream come true right along with her. When I finished The Duchess, I started bugging my husband to book a flight, and that, I think is a testament to the infectiousness of her story.

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