84 Charing Cross Road & The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

This October Christchurch Repertory is staging 84 Charing Cross Road, one of the classic novels combining letter writing and the joy of reading and books.

This is a brilliant, bitter-sweet, true-life story, based on the 20 year correspondence between a struggling New York writer, Helene Hanff, and a London ‘antiquarian’ book dealer, Frank Doel.

The book by Helene Hanff was adapted for the stage, and was filmed with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in the lead roles.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

Another book which blends letters and the love of literature to great effect is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I get the feeling this book is going to be big via word of mouth – I heard of it via the wonderful Bookman Beattie and can but agree with his positive review.

It is set in 1946 and revolves around the correspondence of Juliet with her friends, an American charmer, and the islanders of Guernsey. The joy of this book is its combination – brittle Noel Coward societyisms, Jane Austen-esque romances, and even the intercession of the cold brutality of World War Two and concentration camps.

This book might spark a bit of renewed interest in Charles Lamb too, as the reading of his diaries plays an important role in the story. I knew a little about him (and the tragic murder of his mother by his sister Mary) from the Peter Ackroyd novel The Lambs of London. Charles is known best as the writer (along with Mary) of Tales from Shakespeare

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society shows his enduring appeal beautifully :

He had a genius for sympathy that not one of his great friends could touch. When Wordsworth chided him for not caring enough about nature, Charles wrote, ‘I have no passion for groves and valleys. The rooms where I was born, the furniture which has been before my eyes all my life … old chairs, old streets, squares where I have sunned myself … have I not enough, without your Mountains? I do not envy you. I should pity you, did I not know, that the Mind will make friends of any thing.’

The back story to the writing of this novel is also an engaging one. It was the first novel from a 70-year-old former librarian, Mary Ann Shaffer. Not long after the sale of her manuscript, Mary Ann’s health declined and her niece Annie Barrows took up the role of editor. Mary Ann died early in 2008 without seeing her book in print.