England and the English, for Americans

Cover of "The Duchess of Bloomsbury Stree...

Cover of The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

England’s political history is so complicated, that understanding what protectorship belongs to whom, and which part of the country you’re in while visiting Wales, is a real challenge. Although the following youtube presentation goes ridiculously fast, it’s highly entertaining. I hope you find it educational!

When you’re done watching it, be sure and pick up Helene Hanff‘s books about being an American in an epistolary relationship with a British bookseller: 84 Charing Cross Road and its sequel, Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. They are both sweet and poignant, and underscore the differences between American English and English English, and how much Americans really don’t understand about the English, much as we might think we do because we study their contributions to language through the writings of Shakespeare.

Here is Wikipedia’s information about these books and their author:

First published in 1970, the epistolary work 84 Charing Cross Road chronicles her 20 years of correspondence with Frank Doel, the chief buyer for Marks & Co., a London bookshop, on which she depended for the obscure classics and British literature titles around which her passion for self-education revolved.

She became intimately involved in the lives of the shop’s staff, sending them food parcels during England’s post-war shortages and sharing with them details of her life in Manhattan. Due to financial difficulties and an aversion to travel, she put off visiting her English friends until too late. Doel died in December 1968 of peritonitis from a burst appendix, and the bookshop eventually closed.

Hanff did finally visit Charing Cross Road and the empty but still standing shop in the summer of 1971, a trip recorded in her 1973 book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. In “Duchess”, Hanff describes her visits with friends and fans to various locations and places of literary and historical interest in London and Southern England. This trip was a highlight of her life.

Her modesty and sense of humor are evident as she talks about the friends, including Frank Doel’s wife, Nora, and daughter, Sheila, who were so devoted to her because of 84 Charing Cross Road, and her love of London.

Hanff never married. In the 1987 movie, a photo of a US serviceman is shown in her apartment during the period of World War II, a portrait at which she smiles fondly. No such person is mentioned in her autobiographical Underfoot in Showbusiness, and none of her writings suggests that she ever had any lasting, or even short-term, romantic relationship with anyone.

In Duchess she confides to her diary that she was irritated by ‘a lot of togetherness’ with one of her male English fans who had taken her to Stratford-upon-Avon and Oxford on a two-day driving trip. This implies that Hanff preferred her own company and had no need of a life partner. Her relationship with Frank Doel, warm as it was, was entirely literary.

One interesting facet of Hanff’s career is that she was asked by editor Genevieve (Gene) Young of Harper & Row to write her autobiography as a failed playwright-cum-successful television writer before she became notable as an author, publication of Underfoot In Showbusiness preceding 84 Charing Cross Road by eight years.

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