The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

duchess-of-bloomsbury

Standalone, Moyer Bell, 1997, 144 pgs.

Well, apparently when I say “short review” this week, I mean that literally. I don’t exactly know how much I’m going to be able to talk about this one, because there’s not exactly much to really analyze here. I guess that’s okay, though, because this is a very short book.

As a diary-style travelogue detailing its author’s several weeks in 1970’s Britain, it’s a very odd book for me, too. Anything nonfiction is outside my usual purview, and while I’ve probably read a couple of travelogues for classes here and there, I can’t exactly say I remember any of them.

Its shortness and its genre are also the reasons there’s no summary at the top of this review; there’s really not that much to it. All you need to know going in is that Hanff published an earlier book of letters written between her and a London bookseller which became somewhat famous, and then went to London for a book tour, fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers. It’s very simple, really. I don’t even know if I’d say it has any sort of further meaning.

I couldn’t help but love this, though. Aside from being very witty, Hanff just has this joyous wonder about the entire experience which is instantly engaging. While on one level this is an outsider making commentary about a culture she’s not a part of, it’s not satirical. Instead it’s done with such love and humor that you can’t help but fall a little in love with everything you’re reading about as well. And that love and wonder is conveyed in such a unique and eccentric voice that, as scattered as it can sometimes be, you enjoy every little episode she talks about, down to her constant worries about spending too much money.

Other than that, though, I think I loved reading this just because on some level I connected to it: to what she values in life, to her thought processes. All of things in the preceding paragraphs were draws, from her great love of Great Britain, even when she has to take her martini making into her own hands, to the repeated refrain of “Well if X buys me dinner for the next several nights, I’ll have Y money left, meaning I can stay for Z more time” that becomes almost a running joke.

But I just don’t know if I would have enjoyed it quite as much as I did if it hadn’t been the diary of a woman who clearly loves literature, who spent years learning to read it properly without being taught, and who seems very much like she’d rather be doing that than be at a party, because she’s so awkward about socializing.

Like, look at this quote, taken from a passage where she’s a little fed up with one of her hosts:

“My problem was that by this time the Colonel and I had already had thirty straight hours of Togetherness and I’m not equipped for it, not even with the best friend I have on earth, which he isn’t.” (pg. 72)

That’s pretty much the introvert’s dilemma in a nutshell, isn’t it? I felt a deep, soulful connection with Helene Hanff at that moment, and also laughed a lot.

About half of the book is her waxing poetic about Donne and Shakespeare, and the other half is her worrying about being in the limelight, about having to be Proper in front of people, or about putting her foot in her mouth. I can’t say I don’t feel both of those sentiments.

And that might be a lot of why I liked it; everything about it felt right to me. Even the book’s strangely wistful ending felt like it fit in a way I can’t exactly pinpoint. If I ever penned a travel diary, I can see it looking very much like this, though probably less funny. And if any of that sounds like something you might feel in your bones, I’d suggest giving this a read.

Sometimes when reviewing you can really get in there and dig into the mechanics of how the story and characters are built, how everything about a piece works together as a whole. And sometimes all you can say is that something charmed the pants off of you. This? This charmed the pants off of me on pretty much every level there is, and that’s really all there is to it.

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