Book of the Month: “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street” by Helene Hanff

PHOTO: “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street” by Helene Hanff follows Hanff’s travels throughout London.

By Sarah Griffiths, Staff–

December has arrived, and with it comes less daylight and dropping temperatures. With distance learning continuing from home, reading has become the perfect escape from everyday life, especially when the novel is about traveling.

This month’s “Book of the Month” is recommended by English teacher Christine Baker.  

Author Helene Hanff spent most of her life as an aspiring screenwriter and rose to fame after her 1970 memoir “84, Charing Cross Road” gained popularity. This led to a trip to Paris that inspired the follow-up book “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street‘ which was published in 1973.

“84, Charing Cross Road” is a collection of letters spanning over 20 years that she exchanged with London bookseller Frank Doel. “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street” follows Hanff during her trip to London for the publication of “84, Charing Cross Road,” where she finally meets her pen pal friend in person.

Baker enjoyed Hanff’s joy of traveling to a new place for the first time.

“She had always wanted to travel to London, once she finally gets there she writes about it with this sort of reverent awe. It was really fun to travel around London with her because she was just delighted by pretty much everything. I loved her reactions to stepping into the same spaces once inhabited by Shakespeare and John Donne,” Baker said.

Baker found the author’s open frugality quite funny, finding a reflection of herself in Hanff.

“She’s really honest about how she saved enough money to extend her stay by accepting dinner invitations from friends, acquaintances and fans. This is where I realized that Hanff and I could have been very good friends. I may be an introvert, but I would willingly subject myself to small talk for delicious free food and a longer visit to London,” Baker said.

With only 163 pages, Baker wished the novel never ended, wanting to hear more about Hanff’s travels.

“But maybe therein lies her genius, she told me just enough to make me want to travel and to be completely enchanted by her, and knew when to stop so that I wouldn’t grow tired of her story,” Baker said.

Despite the novel being a true story, Baker found an underlying message: it’s never too late to do the things you’ve always wanted to do.

“When you finally go after that dream — be it travel or otherwise — squeeze every ounce of delight from that dream,” Baker said.

Join Hanff on her adventure to London to live vicariously through her while stuck at home.

“If you’ve wanted to travel but can’t because of COVID, this was a great way to do a bit of armchair traveling. I do think, though, that reading her first book would help give this one context,” Baker said.

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