In the epistolary tradition

Looking for light, easy reading on the recent (sunny!) bank holiday I reached for a book a friend gave me last year. It had that pleasing newness that I rarely experience (reading mainly ebooks and second-hand or library copies), and it was slim (230 pages). Just the size and form a paperback should be, somewhere in the recesses of my idealised memory. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff The book itself was actually two even slimmer (non-fiction) volumes in one: 84 Charing Cross Road and its sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff. I zipped through the first with little effort and a sort of drowsy amusement in the early evening sunshine, and instead of starting the sequel, I began to think.

84 Charing Cross Road consists of the letters exchanged between Helene Hanff (a writer in New York) and the staff (and assorted relatives) of a bookshop in London, at irregular intervals between 1949 and 1969. In one sense it’s mainly made up of orders for (usually antiquarian) books but because of the length of time, and the familiar tone of Hanff’s letters from the start, there is a certain amount of friendship that grows up, and there are glimpses into various lives at a particular point in history. There’s also a mild curiosity as to whether she ever gets to visit England, and the bookshop in particular, as plans are made and money is saved along the way.

Lazing in the last of the sunshine I began to wonder how the book came into being. Who thought that the reading public would enjoy reading the correspondence (some of it missing, as this is real life and papers go astray) between a writer and her favourite bookseller? Not that I’m knocking the book, it was just the thing for the mood I was in on Monday evening, but in 1970 when it was published there wasn’t even the curiosity value of history (typewriters! The Coronation! Postal orders!) wrapped up in it so what was the thinking behind it? Is it just that the reading public are scandalously nosy and can’t resist a peek at someone else’s letters?

Plenty of novels have been written as an exchange of letters, but in my personal opinion the form works best for comedy. Not necessarily laugh out loud comedy, but the kind of thing that’s easy to read, that you want to breeze through with a close-to-permanent smile. It lets both writer and reader get deep into the mannerisms of a character, allows glimpses of other aspects of their life, and lets the reader fill in their own jokes or scenarios based on a passing reference. While I think it’s true that plots too slight to make a good story have been successfully rendered in letters, it’s probably advisable to start with a good plot and work from there.

I had gone on to wonder if there were any good versions using emails rather than letters, when I remembered one of the most consistently funny radio comedies in recent years (I haven’t read the books), Ladies of Letters by Carole Hayman and Lou Wakefield. Part of the appeal is undoubtedly the marvellous delivery from Patricia Routledge and Prunella Scales but the writing is strong as well. There have been a number of series now but the core is the long-standing friendship between Vera and Irene, which allows them to get away with saying all sorts of outrageous things to each other, and of course using email means there are the inevitable missives written in haste or anger, late at night after a little too much sherry, and the ones sent before they were finished or riddled with typos.

Not only did 84 Charing Cross Road provide a couple of hours’ light entertainment this week, it’s got me fired up to try an epistolary story. I suspect it might be harder than it looks.

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