“I was shocked just the same, at sitting in his chair with his favourite hat in my hands. There was a kind of violation in being so familiar with his ghost.”
In Helene Hanff’s third volume (after 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street), she returns to the start of her career, in which she decided to teach herself writing, picked up a volume by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (the titular “Q”) and found so many references to books that she simply had to have, that she struck up a correspondence with a famous London bookshop. She takes us right through Q’s legacy, i.e. her writing success, through the events of 84, then the fame it brought her, leading to the events of The Duchess, and subsequent trips to London for adaptations of 84 for the TV (by the BBC, who else) and the stage.
This slender memoir is really two books hopelessly entangled. On the one hand there is a sweetly told story of being a struggling writer in New York in the 1940s to 60s
“I couldn’t return Harper’s $1,500, having flung it all away recklessly on food and rent.”
which has charm and character and a strong sense of the time at hand which reminded me of Rules of Civility. Why shouldn’t she evoke the 50s if she lived through them, I hear you grumble at your screen. Well, Q’s Legacy was written in 1985 by which stage Ms Hanff was nearly 70. Maybe I don’t sufficiently appreciate the strength of memory.
Anyway, the other half of the book is a fairly irritating, smug recollection of what happened after 84 Charing Cross Road, all the fan mail and visits to England and watching the various adaptations of her work, and it made me quite annoyed.
“I was gratefully aware that Rosemary was reading my letters with extraordinary warmth, wit and comprehension. But I’d read those letters in Hugh Whitemore’s TV script and heard them read over and over every day for ten long days of rehearsal; I’d had to read them again, in scripts submitted for my approval by amateur theatre groups from Massachusetts to Hong Kong; I’d had to read James’ script before it opened in Salisbury and again after he’d made changes in it for London. Now, at the Opening Night in London when I most wanted to relive the correspondence for my own personal reasons, I was finally sick to death of it.”
I think it’s best to stick just with the original 84. There is a charm and innocence to it which is not replicated in its sequels.