Q’s Legacy – Helene Hanff

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.

42 thoughts on “Q’s Legacy – Helene Hanff

  • April 2, 2013 at 1:53 am
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    I really enjoyed this book, though I do think it was stretched a bit thin with filler toward the end. I was impressed with her committment to education! As an archivist, I've wondered where her letters (and Frank Doel's) ended up. I can't remember if there's a reference to her typing letters, or I'm just thinking of the film, but I'd bet she kept carbons.

    Have you read her book Underfoot in Show Business?

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:32 pm
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      I think she MUST have kept carbons, which is incredibly organised (and curious, considering she throws away all her fan mail in the end) – storage does seem to have been at a premium.

      I haven't read Underfoot, but I do HAVE it.

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  • April 2, 2013 at 2:51 am
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    I love all of Hanff's books, and the movie. The first line of this post is too true. Too bad the old shop has been everything but a bookshop since the 70s! It would have been a great literary pilgrimage, and so perfectly situated in London's West End.

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:33 pm
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      And 84, CCR is now Pizza Hut! Sacrilege. I should eat there sometime, for Hanff's sake (even though it's a different building, renumbered, I think.)

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    • April 3, 2013 at 8:58 am
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      Simon, the site isn't Pizza Hut, it's the restaurant on the opposite side of the road that comes off Charing Cross Road at that point, can't recall the restaurant or that road's name now, the plaque about Helene is placed on that building. Whenever we walk along Charing Cross Road, I look up to pay homage to Helene.

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    • April 11, 2013 at 2:04 pm
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      I'll second the recommendation for Between Silk and Cyanide, Marks wrote code poems and has all the literary heritage you might expect from his father's son – just channeled in another direction.

      Also, yay for Q, I'm a fan and discovered 84 CCR because of the Q connection. I remember being slightly put out that Hanff had 'claimed' him with her books so thoroughly but fell in love with them when I stopped sulking and read them. :)

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  • April 2, 2013 at 2:58 am
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    This is a fascinating post. I LOVE 84 Charing Cross Rd and have read it several times and still can't get the picture of Anthony Hopkins out of my head when I hear the title. All of the above is incredibly interesting. Thank you for sharing it Simon.

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:33 pm
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      Thanks very much, Pam!
      I hadn't realised there was a TV adaptation before the film – I wonder if it's available online anywhere? It sounds like they put a lot of work into getting it right.

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  • April 2, 2013 at 7:44 am
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    I too love this book (are these comments getting monotonous?), and all HH's works, but I also like (on rereading it as one gets older) the notes of snappy, trenchant not-as-nice-old-lady-as-you-might-think that emerge in The Duchsss and Apple of My Eye. HH was a snarky New Yorker with attitude, I'm not sure I wold have enjoyed meeting her in real life.

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:35 pm
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      Ha! We *do* all love it, or don't know it – there is no other option.

      I have to say that I didn't like The Duchess anywhere near as much, for precisely the reason you mention – she came across as selfish and trenchant (excellent word). I have put it behind me, and will enjoy her others :)

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  • April 2, 2013 at 7:48 am
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    I'm another lover of 84 Charing Cross Road, and this sounds fascinating, and I would love to read it. Actually, I have a 'Q' connection in hand, because I have just started 'Castle Dor', his unfinished novel, completed by Daphne du Maurier. Recollecting your adverse comments on Frenchman's Creek I suspect you would hate this, but your mother might like it!

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:36 pm
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      If you love 84 CCR then you'll definitely love this, Christine – they're definitely companion pieces (at one point the publisher wants to call Duchess of Bloomsbury 'Son of 84, Charing Cross Road', but that – awful – title would be better applied here.

      And I did like Frenchman's Creek! I just didn't like the 'hero' ;) I drove past Castle D'Or a few years ago, and thought of Q and Daphne.

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  • April 2, 2013 at 9:11 am
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    I'd encourage you to try something more by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (although I've only read two of his books myself, as they are the only ones I have as old Penguins). I've never forgotten the absolute delight of opening up The Astonishing History of Troy Town and starting to read his prose. I thought it was a wonderful book, and a joy to read.

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:37 pm
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      Thanks Karyn – I will keep an eye out! It's sad how much he has disappeared.

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  • April 2, 2013 at 12:32 pm
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    Ooh in the secondhand bookshop where I work, I picked up a collected edition of Helene Hanff's writings. I think it contained five books in all and was still relatively slim! I'm definitely in the 'loved 84 Charing Cross Road' camp, and will look forward to this one, too.

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:37 pm
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      Perfect! She does deal in short books, certainly, which is another reason for me to love her. If you love 84 CCR, you'll definitely find this a fascinating read.

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  • April 2, 2013 at 12:38 pm
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    I love Hanff. I'm an autodidact, too, and completely identify with her excitement and enthusiasm at finding 84, Charing Cross Road with its accommodating staff and wonderful books. Brattle Book in Boston was my 84, Charing Cross Road.

    If you're interested in more Quiller-Couch, a lot of his writing, including On the Art of Writing, is available for free at Manybooks for Kindle, and other sites, I'm sure.

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:39 pm
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      One of those (few) times I wish I had a Kindle! But I will keep an eye out – the Q section of bookshops won't take long to check.

      Although I'm obviously not an autodidact with English lit, since my degrees are in it, I think I am with establishing my taste. I was so surprised, when blogging, to discover that other people loved the same sort of books!

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    • April 6, 2013 at 3:24 pm
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      That's what I love about blogs: all the people you meet with similar tastes. I come from an allegedly bookish family, but we never talk about the books I like to read and I read far more than even my sister, who taught English for many years. Everyone has gone to college and has at least one degree each. I started college, found it boring, and struck off on my own (this was 1970, when that was not at all uncommon). I disliked the structure of college and the treadmill approach to the goal of a degree.

      I was excited to hear two people talking about The Talisman, thinking 'oh, they like Sir Walter Scott!' and then I realized they were talking about the book by Stephen King. So, blogs are where I find people who read the older books and the classics that I enjoy reading.

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  • April 2, 2013 at 2:00 pm
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    I am a long-time, die-hard Hanff fan and read all her books over and over, sort of as "palate cleansers" after long courses of heavier literary fare. Q's Legacy is my third favorite, 84 being my first, and, perhaps surprisingly, Underfoot in Show Business being my second. Underfoot, which was her first book, has all of the humour and self-deprecation we all know and love, and is chock full of fascintating stories of the theatre (the main reason I love it so).

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:40 pm
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      I love the idea of her books as palate cleansers! That's brilliant, Leticia!

      I have Underfoot, and I love anything to do with the theatre, so I'm sure I'm going to love it. (Incidentally, I immediately bought Time Was, about the theatre, after seeing it mentioned in Q's Legacy).

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    • April 3, 2013 at 1:59 pm
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      Oh, my gosh, Time Was has been on my shelf for YEARS! Thanks for reminding me to read it, finally!

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  • April 2, 2013 at 2:46 pm
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    I recall when I first heard there was to be a movie of 84 CCR, I said, oh, they can't possibly make a movie of it.

    It's one of my favourite al time movies, and they did a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of the times and the people.

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:41 pm
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      I was surprised at how good it was, too, Susan! It seemed like an unfilmable book – but what a great job they did.

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  • April 2, 2013 at 2:53 pm
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    Lovely review Simon. I recently re-watched the '84 CCR' movie and wept throughout. As always. I want to live in that movie.

    I read 'Q's Legacy' many years ago and now your review makes me want to pick it up again along with 'The Duchess of Bloomsbury'.

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:42 pm
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      Thanks Belle! It's such a lovely film, isn't it? I want to pull it off my DVD shelf now…

      Happy reading :)

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:42 pm
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      Oh, Karen, I am 100% certain that you'll love it! You can fiercely blame me if you don't ;)

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  • April 2, 2013 at 4:56 pm
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    What a wonderful post – I learned so much, and came away with an intriguing-sounding book for my TBR list. Ignoramus that I am, I had never heard of Arthur Quiller-Couch, and would never have picked up Q's Legacy from the title. What I would have missed, it seems! Thanks for the insight. :-)

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    • April 2, 2013 at 9:43 pm
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      Thanks Debbie! I think you'd love this – but read 84, Charing Cross Road first, if you haven't read that! I agree – her titles aren't very prepossessing, but they're worth overcoming to get to the deliciously bookish books.

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  • April 3, 2013 at 7:03 am
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    Ah – a trip down memory lane for me, here. I have Q's On Reading, On Writing and From a Cornish Window, and bought them in a secondhand bookshop in Tunbridge Wells as a result of reading the Hanff book! We walked down CX Road yesterday and waved at the former 84. I'm sure that there used to be a little plaque there, or am I imagining that?

    I took part in a radio programme about the book years ago – we were given copies to BookCross. Not only did I get to share the book, but I made a lifelong friend in the shape of my friend Sarah from New Zealand.

    Happy days!

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    • April 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm
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      What a lovely story, about the radio programme, Liz! And, as we all know from sharing recommendations, there's nothing lovelier than when someone takes advice we've given and loved the book in question. So Hanff would be thrilled that you found Q's books!

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  • April 3, 2013 at 2:30 pm
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    I just love all of Hanff's books. Her book on NYC is a good read before visiting the city. And, of course, she spurred me on to read Q's Art of Writing. The Art of Reading is currently on my TBR as well. I didn't realize that he had started Castle Dor and duMaurier finished it — must pick that up!

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  • April 3, 2013 at 10:34 pm
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    Simon, I had the happy honor to meet over lunch with Helene Hanff years ago, and corresponded with her several times thereafter. She was delightful, forthright and witty. We discussed Jane Austen at great length and Helene agreed to attend a JASNA meeting with me in NYC – but a sudden hospitalization (mine) canceled those plans.
    There's a great book about her early days, Underfoot in Show Business, which is well worth a search.
    By the way, her family nickname was "Sissy" and that's what I called her. She loved it!

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    • April 3, 2013 at 11:44 pm
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      That all sounds amazing!! I wonder, what were her thoughts on Austen? I'm sure they would have made a fascinating article!

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    • April 13, 2013 at 1:28 pm
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      Goodness, how lucky! (Well, except for the hospitalization – but at least you got to meet and chat once.)
      I do have the show business book, and will get onto it soon.

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  • April 3, 2013 at 11:47 pm
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    Simon, I'm grateful to have seen 84, Charring Cross Road – and been very impressed by it. Since then, it's been on my to-read list.

    I actually am currently reading another one of your recommendations. I felt like I won the book lottery when I got my hands on "London War Notes" through my local library. Hoping I can get through it before it's due back. What a gem of a book!

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    • April 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm
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      Oh, you'll definitely love it, Samara. And so pleased to see you loved London War Notes too!

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  • April 4, 2013 at 12:47 am
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    I remember stumbling across 84, Charing Cross Road in a local bookshop, intrigued by its thin size, loved the feel of it, the looks of the pages (correspondence) – the sort of thing I like to read – bought it, took it home, & read it immediately. When I checked the date it was written, was actually Very Angry that I had never heard of the book before, that no one ever pointed it out to me.

    I also have Q's Legacy and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street – where she finally visits London (an earlier, planned trip had to be cancelled – I think she had to have an appendectomy or something). Doel had died & the bookstore closed by then. I also have Underfoot in Show Business, about her coming to NYC. You would also enjoy a couple of other books by her: Letters from New York, "which reprinted the five-minute talks she gave each month on the BBC's Woman's Hour radio broadcasts between 1978 and 1984" – and Apple of My Eye, the text to accompany photographs in a guide to New York City, done with a friend of hers (written about their day trips out and around the city, touring the places they had feelings for).

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    • April 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm
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      It does seem extraordinary that any book lovers wouldn't love 84CCR – I was lucky enough to read it early in my book-loving life, although I forget how it fell into my path.

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