The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street


Still on the “84 Charing Cross Road” high, I had managed to convince enough of my book club friends to join me in an unofficial discussion of the book last Saturday. At Flips Flipping Pages, we normally do unofficial discussions (outside of the monthly schedule) for certain books when one person (or more) needs closure feels strongly about it and elects to moderate.

Of course, being the highly suggestible people we are, it’s normally not a big challenge to gather up enough people for a discussion, but considering I kept having to move it all throughout March due to scheduling conflicts, I was pleasantly surprised at the turnout (I love you Flippers!).


I was kind of afraid of how people would react to the book but I’m glad most people enjoyed it as much as I did. We spent the afternoon discussing what we gleaned from the characters based on their letters, what-ifs (what if they had met, what if Helene anonymously visited the store when Frank was alive, what if it happened today, etc.), the post-war rationing, the events after the publication of the book, our favorite passages, reading preferences (as compared to Helene’s) and many more.

I’m also glad everyone loved the loot ‘envelope’ I prepared. Traditionally, unofficial discussions don’t have our usual book discussion swag (because they’re meant to be last-minute meetups over coffee and we want to ease the load on the moderator) but I couldn’t resist putting together some themed odds and ends (special thanks to Shani! for the tiny book parcel):

IMG_0141-001As the final activity, we wrote our names and addresses on scraps of paper and drew lots, and we’re each sending the Marks & Co postcard to the person we drew. I’ve sent out my postcard, and one is making its way to me already, so yay!

And here we are:

Anyway, because of that discussion, I got to read “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street,” the sequel to “84 Charing Cross Road” because Iya’s book had both books in one volume and she kindly lent it to me. (Iya has actually lived in London and is our go-to girl for all things British! Back in February, I had asked her if she would read the book along with everyone else and I wasn’t surprised when she said that she already had, and it was in fact, one of her favorite books.)

“The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street” is actually Helene’s journal from her trip to the UK, which finally happened after “84” was published, and she was invited to help publicize the book in London. It’s different because it’s entirely from Helene’s side now, and it’s not quite as quick to read but I enjoyed it all the same.

We learn more about Helene’s peculiar personality (outside of the purchase orders from “84”), and it makes sense why she had to send out for her books. She had an almost paralyzing fear of a lot of things, and we see it clearly in the first few pages: despite the small crowd that promised to meet her at the airport, she was in panic over the possibility that no one would meet her and she meant to sit at the airport until the next flight back to New York and fly home.

The book chronicles the details of her month-long trip — from  the long-awaited meeting with Doels (whom she just spent 20 years corresponding with in “84”), the book events (interviews, parties and the like, not at all different from today’s book events, except that she had to pay for her own lodging), and all her adventures and misadventures in London and the English countryside. It’s amusing how people (random readers, friends of friends, etc) came out of the woodwork determined to show her a good time. They manage to draw Helene out of her shell considerably and she has a grand time, and she dubs herself the “Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.”

Helene is such a character (she’s like a batty old aunt) and there are lots of laugh-out-loud moments in this book: her battle with the English shower (“… you climb in, crouch in the back corner, and drown… Glad I shut the bathroom door or the suitcase would have been washed away”), funny bulletin board posts she takes note of,  the tickets to Shakespeare that fell into her lap (“I feel as if God had leaned down from heaven and pasted a gold star on my forehead.”), Britishisms (“they say ‘hoppussix’ and ‘hoppusseven’. And ‘in’ at home is ‘trendy’ here and ‘give it up’ is ‘pack it in’ and ‘never mind!’ is ‘not to worry!’ … and as Shaw once observed, we are two countries divided by a common language. I am now going to bed because it’s quataposstwelve.”) and many more.

And it has some pretty lovely bits, too, including this one:

“I tell you, life is extraordinary. A few years ago I couldn’t write anything or sell anything, I’d passed the age where you know all the returns are in, I’d had my chance and done my best and failed. And how was I to know the miracle waiting to happen round the corner in late middle age? 84, Charing Cross Road was no best seller, you understand; it didn’t make me rich or famous. It just got me hundreds of letters and phone calls from people I never knew existed; it got me wonderful reviews; it restored a self-confidence and self-esteem I’d lost somewhere along the way, God knows how many years ago. It brought me to England. It changed my life.”

I hope we see some fresh new stock of these books (2 in 1 please!) on bookstore shelves soon, or maybe I should write to some proper British bookseller to send me a copy! ;)


The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, borrowed copy, 4/5 stars

2 thoughts on “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street”

  1. I’m getting a hardbound 2-in-1 (hope it’s vintage, there was no cover photo) via Bookmooch, which apart from EBay is probably the closest we can get to a Marks & Co. experience these days! Glad you enjoyed “Duchess”. It makes me long for London with every re-read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *