Anne Bancroft's Introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of 84 Charing Cross Road

I'm not a writer, but this book and its author mean enough to me that I'm glad to venture a few words in celebration of its new edition. Like the people who win our hearts, the books we come to love can introduce themselves in the strangest ways. Let me tell you about how I met 84, Charing Cross Road. Some years ago, as I was sitting on the beach on Fire Island, a man strolling by approached me. I didn't know the fellow, so his exclamation - "I've just read something that would be perfect for you!" - took me by surprise. The next day, as I sat in the same spot, he came my way again, this time with book in hand. His enthusiasm seemed so sincere I couldn't help but be intrigued. So, soon as he was gone, I opened the small volume he had delivered and started to read. That's how my romance with 84, Charing Cross Road began.

As many of you already know - and many more, I hope, are about to find out - it's difficult, if not impossible, to start this book without finishing it. The trail of Helene Hanff's correspondence with Frank Doel and his colleagues at Marks & Co. leads us, captivated, down one woman's idiosyncratic path through English Literature; along the way, our enjoyment in sharing her literary education is deepened by the human narrative her letters weave. This is a book which seems at first to be about other books, which of course it is, but as we get to know Helene, and, through her, Frank and Nora Doel, and Cecily Farr and Megan Wells and the rest at 84 Charing Cross, we recognise that the books desired, located, sent and received are the happy vehicles for much else: conversation, friendship, affection, generosity, wit - in other words, for all the best things life can share with us.

Which brings me to just what it is about this slim book that means so much to me. The more I listened to Helene's distinctive, wry, and winning voice, the more I heard echoes in it of another voice, that of a friend I'd been close to for many years, since, in fact, we'd been students together. Much like Helene, this friend was enchanted by books in a way that animated his every word; what resonated between Helene's voice on the page before me, and my friend's in my memory, was the respect, need, and love for books that characterised their mutual passion. Sadly, at the time the wandering reader of Fire Island delivered 84, Charing Cross Road into my hands, I was mourning the death of this very friend. So all the while Helene was writing to Frank Doel about Pepys and Hazlitt and Stevenson and "Q", her words were really talking to me about this dear friend of mine, giving them a poignancy that only enriched the extraordinary charms they already possessed.

Soon after, knowing of my attachment to this book, my husband did a wonderful thing, pursuing and acquiring the film rights to it and presenting them to me as an anniversary gift. That's how I got to play Helene on the screen, and to meet her in person. If I were a better writer, I'd describe the occasion on which we all met the Queen Mother at a command performance of the movie; the image of Helene democratically offering her hand to royalty remains an indelible memory. Now, I certainly didn't mean to pass myself off as a reader of the stature of Helene Hanff, nor even the beachcomber who dropped her book into my lap, but it seems to me that my experience with this lovely volume reveals an awful lot about what books provide: a way of reaching out across time and space to friends and strangers, and to the absent presences that play such a large part in all our lives. In the pages that follow you'll recognise Helene reaching out to her beloved English authors and to the many friends in and about 84, Charing Cross that these long-dead writers introduced to her. What you won't recognise is the beachcomber speaking to me, or myself communing with my late friend; but, believe me, there we are, right between the lines.
Articles by and about Helene Hanff
The Definitive Helene Hanff Website
Copyright 2014 Angela Garry !
Website design by Angela Garry
Helene and Anne Bancroft on the set of 84 Charing Cross Road
Please select and click an author name to read the piece...
Anne Bancroft - Introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition of 84 Charing Cross Road
The Guardian - April 11, 1997
The Independent - April 14, 1997
Mark Shivas - Tribute article, April 11, 1997
The Guardian - April 11, 1997
The Guardian - April 11, 1997
The Guardian - April 11, 1997
Helene Hanff - A Day in the Life
James Roose-Evans - Tribute article April 14, 1997