Amongst those of us who write or read book blogs, there are two varieties: those who love Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road, and those who have yet to read it. In case you have yet to have that pleasure, it’s the (true) letters between Hanff in America and Frank Doel, who worked in a London bookshop. It’s charming and bookish, and a slightly can’t-believe-how-stereotypical-they’re-being encounter between brash American and restrained Brit. I’ve bought a few Hanff books since I read 84, Charing Cross Road (and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, published together) eight or so years ago, but the first I’ve read was Q’s Legacy (1985) on the train home to Somerset. And it was fab.
For some reason, I had believed that Q’s Legacy was Hanff’s first book, and settled down to it for that reason. I was, at it turns out, wrong – most of this book is about the writing, success, and aftermath of 84, Charing Cross Road – but before I get to that, I’ll address the title. You might, or might not, know that ‘Q’ is the author, essayist, poet, and anthologist Arthur Quiller-Couch (which rhymes with pooch). I believe ‘Q’ dates from the time when writers in periodicals, particularly Punch, appeared under initials (hence A.A. Milne being known as AAM for some of his publications) – but Arthur Quiller-Couch could get by with just ‘Q’. Although he pops up quite a lot in biographies I’ve read about other people, the only work I’ve read by Q is his poem ‘Upon Eckington Bridge, River Avon’ – because I grew up in the small Worcestershire village which boasts this bridge. Barbara recently visited in on her travels, so you can see it here.
His legacy to Hanff came about by writing On The Art of Writing, which she stumbles across while trying to educate herself in literature. In his five-volume collection of lectures, he covers the grand scope of literature, and inspires Hanff to go off hunting:
In the first chapter of On The Art of Writing he threw so many marvellous quotes at me – from Walton’s Angler, Newman’s Idea of a University, and Milton’s Paradise Lost – that I rushed back to the library and brought home all three, determined to read them all before going on to Q’s second lecture. Which would have been perfectly possible if I hadn’t included Paradise Lost. In Paradise Lost I ran into Satan, Lucifer, the Infernal Serpent, and a Fiend, all of whom seemed to be lurking around the Garden of Eden and none of whom my teachers at Rodeph Shalom Sunday School had ever mentioned to me. I consulted my Confirmation Bible, but I couldn’t find Milton’s fearsome personages in Genesis. I concluded that Lucifer and the Fiend weren’t Jewish and I would have to look in the New Testament for them, and since this was an entirely new book to me, Q had to wait while I read that one, too.
When she wants to source some out of print books mentioned by Q, can you guess where she goes for help? Yes, that’s right – Marks & Co. Bookshop, at 84, Charing Cross Road – that’s how their acquaintance starts.
Alongside this autodidacticism, Hanff is trying to make it by writing. She manages to eke out a non-lucrative career, slowly writing poorly paid history books for children. She tries her hand at various other types of writing, with very little success – a lovely publisher called Genevieve encourages her along the way, with a mixture of blunt honesty and unrealistic optimism.
And eventually, while going through old boxes of letters, Hanff stumbles across the letters she received from Frank Doel, some twenty years later. She thinks that they might, if edited, make a fun magazine article – and sends them to Genevieve. She loves them, and passes them onto a niche publisher – and, without ever having intended to make a book out of them, Hanff finds that she will be published. (She entirely glosses over how she got her half of the correspondence – perhaps she kept carbon copies, or perhaps Frank Doel’s then-widow sent them to her.) Either way – a book was made.
For those of us who love 84, Charing Cross Road, this book is the equivalent of a Behind The Scenes clip on a DVD. We get to see the creation, but we also get to see the aftermath. Hanff writes self-deprecatingly and amusingly about being catapulted to fame (albeit the sort of fame a literary author gets; she’s no Lady Gaga) and having fans. As she points out, including her current address in a book probably wasn’t the wisest move for anybody who wants any privacy – and, sure enough, many strangers phone or write, although none seem to turn up in the middle of the night with a horse’s head, so… that’s something.
But things do not finish there! Hanff continues to document her experiences as 84, Charing Cross Road is turned into a 1975 TV programme and a 1981 stage play. Had Hanff waited a couple of years to publish Q’s Legacy, she might have been able to include the film adaptation (which is very good, and even has a small role for Judi Dench, back when she didn’t really do films.) Seeing the TV and stage adaptations behind the scenes, from someone tangentially involved but still wowed by the whole process, was a real treat. I much enjoyed a lot of it very, very much – although when Q’s Legacy turned into diary entries, for Hanff’s trip to London, it lost some of its charm and momentum, in my eyes.)
Hanff admits that she struggles to create memorable or apt titles, and I can’t imagine there are many souls who leapt at the title Q’s Legacy (although some certainly do – like me), but I am glad that she chose it. It’s fun to trace one’s literary tastes and career successes to a single decision – and generous of her to dedicate her writing, as it were, to a man who could never know anything about it. Although Hanff is really only known for 84, Charing Cross Road, Q’s Legacy suggests that she should be known for rather more – and anybody who wishes that 84, Charing Cross Road were much longer will be happy to discover, in Q’s Legacy, that, if the correspondence cannot be extended, at least the tale of Hanff and Doel is.