Word Perfect

84, Charing Cross Road celebrates the life of language.

When I was a child growing up in London, someone gave me a large red book called Sunday, published in the 1880s. On the flyleaf was written "To little Nellie, from Papa." The book had been created for Victorian children trapped in their dark, stifling houses for a full day every week after church, and it was an anthology of all kinds of pictures and writing. It felt mysterious to me, and wonderful -- a grab bag where I could fish for bits and pieces, develop favorite sections to read over and over again, venture into new territory, discover authors I wanted to know more about. There were adventure stories; homilies about manners that -- at the age of ten or eleven -- I took very seriously; anecdotes about "our dear Queen"; word definitions; explanations of how such phrases as "worth his salt" had come into use; short poems by Wordsworth and Tennyson. I remember a grace by Robert Herrick that went:

Here, a little child I stand
Heaving up my either hand;
Cold as paddocks though they be,
Here I lift them up to thee,
For a benison to fall
On our meat, and on us all.

I was amazed at the idea of heaving up your hands -- it sounded so much more powerful and important than simply putting them together-- and I thought of paddocks as fields where horses grazed; I had no idea what the word could mean in this context. (Frogs, it turns out. Did you know?) But it didn't matter. My lack of understanding just made the poem more evocative. I was at the age when you enter completely into the world of a book and hear the author's voice speaking kindly and definitively only to you.

Sallie Diamond in 84, Charing Cross Road.
Sallie Diamond in 84, Charing Cross Road.

I lived alone with my widowed mother, and Sunday introduced me to a cozy domestic world of contented children, solid and financially secure parents, lots of doting aunts and uncles, and Dickensian-sounding foods. Who wouldn't prefer a "sweetmeat" to a sweet or candy? Having no father of my own, I envied Nellie her Papa and sometimes pretended he was mine. It made me sad to think about how long ago both of them had died, but I was also thrilled to be in some way a part of their intimacy and to know that the words I read had also passed through Nellie's mind.

A fascination with the life of old books provides a lot of the charm of 84, Charing Cross Road, currently playing at Germinal Stage. Helene Hanff was a New York writer who managed to make a living with her clattering old typewriter but never found the success she hoped for as a playwright. Hanff wrote the occasional story for the New Yorker, essays for the BBC, scripts for television.

In 1949 she began corresponding with a London bookseller by the name of Frank Doel, and their letters form the basis for this play. An anglophile and lover of literature, Hanff longed to see England. Marks and Co., one of the row of bookstores on Charing Cross Road, became her link to that country. In the early letters, she simply inquired about out-of-print books and kvetched about the difficulty of translating bills written in pounds, shillings and pence to dollars. Doel, ever affable and self-effacing, responded. Over twenty years, the two shared their understanding of books as treasures, living things. In every other way, Hanff and Doel were hugely different. She -- as depicted in her own letters -- was brash, loud and funny, he painstakingly polite. But clearly, the vigor and wit of her observations delighted him, just as his understated responses did her. Over the twenty years of their correspondence, the world changed around them. She muttered about the vulgarity of the television series that allowed her to eke out a living; he watched drab post-war London, with its food rationing and bombed-out buildings, transform into the hip city of Carnaby Street and the Beatles -- a place where dusty, dedicated little shops like his were becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Early in their exchange, Hanff discovered that the staff of Marks and Co. was suffering the effects of post-war rationing, and began ordering parcels of eggs and canned meat for them from Denmark, even managing to acquire nylon stockings for the women. One of these grateful staffers responded with a recipe for Yorkshire pudding and repeatedly invited Hanff to visit England and stay at her home. In the letters, Mr. Doel became Frank, and then Frankie. Eventually, both he and Hanff were signing off "love" -- although he always carefully added, "from all of us here."

Hanff planned a visit to London but, perpetually broke, kept putting it off. By the time she finally arrived in the city, her women friends were long gone from Marks and Co., and Frank himself had died. One wonders if the current of feeling between the two of them would have survived an actual meeting, or if the relationship could flourish only through the written word.

Hanff published a book of the letters in 1971, and that book became her most successful venture as an author. James Roose-Evans adapted it for the stage, and 84, Charing Cross Road also became a movie starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.

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