“I have implicit faith in the U.S. Airmail and His Majesty’s Postal Service”
Miss Helene Hanff, struggling writer, sends a missive to a second-hand bookshop in London asking for clean second-hand copies of a few books for under $5.00, and from this simple request, a Transatlantic friendship of almost 20 years is born. Letters fly back and forth, Hanff haranguing the staff for not finding her a particular copy of the New Testament, Mr Frank Doel responding in cordial British every time with some new offering. Hanff’s desire to see “the England of English literature” and the bookshop staff’s gratitude for her post-war gifts are palpable.
This is a slim volume – even in a double edition with its sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury St, it barely runs to 200 pages. Nevertheless, the characters are beautiful – innocent, good-hearted, and all the better for being real, including sweet Cecily, who timidly includes a note:
“Dear Miss Hanff, Please don’t let Frank know I’m writing this but every time I send you a bill I’ve been dying to slip in a little note and he might not think it quite proper of me… We all love your letters and try to imagine what you must be like. I’ve decided you’re young and very sophisticated and smart-looking…”
and teaches Helene how to make Yorkshire pudding, by correspondence.
Hanff’s letters are full of sweet comedy (capitalisation or lack thereof is as printed – all the better for imagining her pecking away at her typewriter):
“Will you please translate your prices hereafter? I don’t add too well in plain American, I haven’t a prayer of ever mastering bilingual arithmetic.”
“Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND… you leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in library books that don’t belong to me, some day they’ll find out i did it and take my library card away. I have made arrangements with the Easter bunny to bring you an Egg, he will get over there and find you have died of Inertia.”
(I love the capitalisation as emphasis rendered by a typewriter.)
“WELL!!! All I have to say to YOU, Frank Doel, is we live in depraved, destructive and degenerate times when a bookshop – a BOOKSHOP – starts tearing up beautiful old books to use as wrapping paper. I said to John Henry when he stepped out of it… You tore that book up in the middle of a major battle and I don’t even know which war it was.”
“YOU’VE BEEN PUBLISHING THESE MAMMOTH CATALOGUES ALL THESE YEARS AND THIS IS THE FIRST TIME YOU EVER BOTHERED TO SEND ME ONE? THOU VARLET? Don’t remember which restoration playwright called everybody a Varlet, i always wanted to use it in a sentence.”
Not a long or taxing read, but a beautiful one. I can’t wait to see the movie, which is supposed to be excellent.
The cover art is so beautiful and so appropriate, a simple idea but a wonderful one. This is definitely one of my favourite covers.