Although she came from modest beginnings and often struggled to make ends meet, in many ways Helene Hanff lived a charmed life. She came of age during the Depression and spent only one year at college despite showing a great aptitude for learning and scholarly work. Scholarship money simply wasn't there for undergraduates, rather it went to upper level students who couldn't finish their studies without it. Secretly relieved, since she was mostly interested in English literature and the art of writing, she took up with Sir Arthur Quiller Couch to continue her education. It provided the groundwork for all that came after--a career spent writing and her own fame on both sides of the Atlantic, all of which she recounts in Q's Legacy.
I think I would be too intimidated to meet most authors, especially those whose work I really admire. Helene Hanff, however, for all her acerbic wit and no-nonsense attitude seemed like a completely approachable writer. In her day she had an almost cult-like following and even now her books, particularly 84, Charing Cross Road are still much loved. She hit a nerve with other booklovers. Reading her books is an affirmation of all the reasons I love literature, and while my reading tastes may not always parallel hers, I think I can easily match her enthusiasm for books. During her lifetime she accrued a steady fan-base and she always responded to them, even if they called her in the middle of the night or during her meals.
Last year I revisited 84, Charing Cross Road, the book that shot her to fame, and then followed up with The Duchess of Bloomsbury, where she shares her much anticipated (though she never thought she would actually get there) visit to England that sadly happened too late for her to meet Frank Doel or even see her beloved bookstore, Marks & Co. It was serendipity to read them in this order as Q's Legacy is a memoir of her experiences which began with finding Q on her library's bookshelves. She had been working in a bookstore in the summer when business was slow and she could begin her college education in advance of starting classes. Scanning the library shelves and moving alphabetically she wanted to find a textbook that was accessible, easy to understand yet was written by someone with the right credentials.
"I went on through the N's, O's and P's, fighting a suspicion that what I wanted didn't exist.
There was only one book under Q.
ON THE ART OF WRITING
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, M.A.
King Edward VII Professor of English Literature
in the University of Cambridge
The dust-jacket biography told me that author was a graduate of Trinity COllege, Oxford, and that the book was just one of several volumes of lectures delivered to his students at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he still taught. It added that he was also the author of popular novels which were signed simply 'Q,' the nickname by which was known to his students."
Not only did he write in a way that she understood, but he had a sense of humor. She brought him home and dived into his lectures stopping each time he discussed a work she hadn't read, so she could read it first before continuing on. And so began her education of and love affair with English literature. She would borrow or buy copies of the books he wrote about, but wanted proper cloth editions. When she came across an add for Marks & Co., Antiquarian Booksellers she sent off her wishlist.
"Then Q brought English literature into my life and my passion for London grew. Sam Pepys's London might be gone, but Leigh Hunt's was still there. I wanted to take the walks he took at night. I wanted to stand on Westminster Bridge and look at the view, because Wordsworth said Earth had not anything to show more fair. But it was all day-dreaming. Between my hand-to-mouth income and my fear of travel, I never really expected to see London. Staring at that ad, I thought it would be a lovely consolation prize to hold in my hands books that actually came from there. Marks & Co. might be another Chaucer Head, but while I was afraid to walk into such a bookshop I wasn't afraid to write a letter to one. I wrote to Marks & Co., requesting three books and warning the shop that I couldn't pay more than five dollars for each of them."
Although we know the outcome of the correspondence that took place between Helene and the folks at Marks & Co. (and particularly Frank Doel), it was really only chance that we ever learned of it. This took place during WWII, but Helene was busy during those years and after simply trying to make a living as a writer. She wrote for the theater and for TV in the age when it was broadcast live. She never had much money, but she managed to get by. When the TV and movie industry moved from New York to Hollywood and most other writers migrated west with it, Helene remained in NYC and had to adapt.
She would often write history books for children or articles for newspapers and magazines, which is where the first inspiration for publishing her correspondence came from. It turned out the article she wrote was too long for publication in a magazine, so it was turned into a book with the idea it would only appeal to a small niche of readers, but it was one that struck a chord. It was enough of a success to be published in the UK and then be adapted to both screen and stage. She never became overly wealthy from it, but she did finally begin to earn a good living.
Q's Legacy is a delight to read and is written in her inimitable style, witty and self-deprecating. It's sort of a behind-the-scenes look at her success. Imagine if she had discarded her letters from Mark & Co. She had only kept them for tax purposes initially, but they also served as a fond reminiscence of her literary education. And happily she shared them with us.
I'm hoping to read her first book, Underfoot in Show Business, sometime soon.