When putting pen to paper, the words convey a story – whether it is a fantastical tale of swashbuckling heroes, or in the thoughts shared with a friend. A series of letters can be a powerful thing, painting an image of an entire world from hints hidden in each envelope.
One of my favorite epistolary books is 84, Charing Cross Road, which is a selection of real correspondence between the author, Helene Hanff, and bookseller Frank Doel.
The collection starts in October 1949, with a letter sent from her New York apartment, in which Helene inquires about used copies of several titles. Her queries to the London based Marks & Co. Booksellers are handled by one FPD. Over the course of her letters and requests for various titles, Helene gets the bookseller, Frank Doel, to open up.
There is great contrast between Helene’s bombastic personality, and Frank’s staid one, but you get the sense of genuine care between the two. This friendship grows over twenty years, over many book orders, and Helene ordering much coveted foodstuffs sent to the shop in the heavily rationed England, making sure to include other shop workers in her generosity.
Her actions cause other staff at the shop to reach out:
“Please don’t let Frank know I’m writing this but every time I send you a bill I’ve been dying to slip in a little note and he might not think it quite proper of me. That sounds stuffy and he’s not, he’s quite nice really, very nice in fact, it’s just that he does rather look on you as his private correspondent as all your letters and parcels are addressed to him.” Cecily Farr, 7th April, 1950
The book contains several letters between Helene and others in Frank’s life, including co-workers, his wife, and even one from a friend who is traveling and visits the bookshop on Helene’s behest, writing back a lovely description of the establishment. Several letters include plans for Helene to travel to London and visit the bookshop herself, though as of the time of the last letter in the book, in 1969, she had not. Marks & Co. closed in 1970, the year the book was published.
It is the little things in the letters, the attitude of Helene when she has not received any books in a while (including the absence of capitalization), the warm responses and small details about the shop included in the invoices from Frank, that draw a reader in, so much that at times it feels more like fiction than non-fiction.
Personal correspondence contributes not only to literary endeavors, but also to history, providing first hand accounts of life – a snapshot in time of the senders’ world. Letters can bring to life events that history books may paint with a broad brush through small details, such as the food rationing in Britain during and after the second world war.
Do you have a favorite tale conveyed via correspondence? Perhaps you and a pen pal may find something to talk about in this unique form of literature.