Traveling Alone & Helene Hanff’s The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

Year after year I’d planned a pilgrimage to London, only to have it canceled at the last minute by some crisis, usually financial. This time it was different.  From the beginning, heaven seemed to favor the trip.”–Helene Hanff’s The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

DuchessofBloomsburyCOVERI  am reading Helene Hanff’s The Duchess of Bloomsbury, a sequel to 84 Charing Cross Road, the story of her 20-year correspondence with the buyer of an antiquarian bookstore.  Hanff, an autodidact, was unable to find the books she needed in New York, so she ordered dozens from London.

After the publication of 84 Charing Cross Road, she finally traveled to London, though, alas, her friend the buyer had died and the bookstore closed.  The publishing company set up a mini-book tour for her (signings and interviews).  Though Helene was terrified by the flight, her many friends and fans made her comfortable in London:  a fan who worked for the airline whisked her through customs (“She’s a friend”), and then Nora from the store and her daughter Sheila drove her to the Kenilworth Hotel in Bloomsbury (at Russell Square near the British Museum.)

Her adventures at the hotel are very amusing.  Why is it so hard to be an American traveling in London?  It’s because we don’t know how to work the gadgets.

She is baffled by the shower.

The shower stall is a four-foot cubicle and it has only one spigot, nonadjustable, trained on the back corner.  You turn the spigot on and the water’s cold.  You keep turning, and by the time the water’s hot enough for the shower you’ve got the spigot turned to full blast. Then you climb in, crouch in the back corner and drown.  Dropped the soap at once and there went fifteen dollars worth of hairdresser down the drain, my shower cap was lifted clear off my head by the torrent.  Turned the spigot off and stepped thankfully out–into four feet of water.

I was similarly bemused by the shower. When I reported that only cold water came out of the spigot, the clerk explained one handle was for the temperature, the other for the pressure. Then I managed to get hot water (only hot water), which was preferable to cold.  Regulate the temperature?  Couldn’t be done.

Helene was constantly getting lost.  She couldn’t read a map.

Sallied forth with my map after breakfast and saw the sights of Bloomsbury.  Got lost several times; it seems a street can be on the left on your map without necessarily being Left of where you’re standing.  Various gents came out from under umbrellas to point me where I wanted to go.

I got lost, too.  It was easier after I figured out that if you’re not on the side of the street where the signs are you’ll never find your way.   And you never know whether the sign will be on the left or the right!.

Helene didn’t take the tube.  She walked, took cabs, and her fans sometimes picked her up in cars. The tube is much easier than cabs, I think.  The one time I called a cab (the black cab company recommended by the guidebook), I was waiting on the steps when a clerk came out to say I had a phone call.  The dispatcher told me there wasn’t a cab in the area. So even if all the others were rogue cabs, as my guidebook suggested, I could not lug my books to the shipping store on my own. The third company sent a cab.

IMG_2840By the way, after a bracing first night sleeping in jeans and sweaters, I  experimented with the white thing on the wall.  Fortunately it was a radiator.

And then there was blessed heat!

I’m an inexperienced traveler, as you can tell. I’m used to bicycling in the country.   But I loved London and hope I’ll go back someday.  My husband says he’ll go if I can find a boat.

Hanff’s book is a wonderful travel book, and I wish I’d read it before I left.  Nothing much has changed since the ’70s…  And I laugh at her adventures, because we are/were both inexperienced travelers.

6 thoughts on “Traveling Alone & Helene Hanff’s The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

  1. I got a copy of 84 Charing Cross Road at a book sale a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it – I’ve read a lot of accounts of English writers going to America (Vera Brittain, E.M. Delafield, etc) so it was fun to reverse that. Have you seen the film? Very charming and well cast, I thought.


  2. You’ve put forth an explanation why people join tour groups. But one learns so much more — though not exactly cataloguable (misspelled) — going it alone.

    Yes in the UK you have separate spigots or faucets and are expected to mix the water yourself. Jim liked that and in our renovated bathroom sinks we actually have a set-up with two faucets. You can no longer get that in a shower — or must pay a high price. When you are taking a bath (as English people used to do much more than showers), it enables you to adjust the water slowly. I actually dislike the way there’s just one spigot and I have to endlessly try to tweak the lever, now getting way too hot water coming out and now way too cold.

    Hanff’s book must be a little sad as she didn’t get to meet her bookseller of all those years.


  3. Ms. Mirabile: Your account thus far is a wonderful read! Do carry on! I must tell you about something I saw of British plumbing. Once I walked by an office building in London which was being razed and the interior of a wall still which was standing exposed the position of the water pipes where nothing seemed to be based on gravitational pull as in the US. Pipes had been laid in place in circles and zigzagged in all directions! I never stayed in a hotel in London but a friend of mine who did told me on his second trip there brought along his own shower head!


  4. Ellen is right, we Brits prefer two taps on showers, baths and even kitchen sinks. Mixer taps as we call the US style are available here, but aren’t liked by many. I recently reread Helene Hanff’s two books about “her” bookshop for the readers’ group, which I run. It was a great hit with everyone. I have all her books and bought them as first editions, as they were published. Glad that you had a good time, Kat.


  5. Karen, Catherine, and Clare, I loved 84 Charing Cross and should reread it. I’ve never seen the film. A good one to book on Netflix.

    Catherine, I love Delafield, but haven’t read Brittain on her travel. (Now I wish I had found some Brittain in London. No doubt it was in one of the bookstores I didn’t go to!)

    Ellen, I know I would have learned much more on a tour, but it’s not my way. It is funny how technology gave me trouble. There were directions in the room for everything BUT the shower and the radiator. On the other hand, the hotel people must have been used to complaints, because they told me exactly how to use the shower.

    Joel, I have to laugh at your description of the plumbing! Aha! Next time I’ll need a shower head. Well, I won’t get back for a while, but I’m thinking I might stay in a slightly more upscale hotel next time. I spent almost nothing–I don’t know how I did it!

    Clare, Hanff’s books are so much fun to read. I’m sure your book group appreciated them! I have read one other, Q’s Legacy, but they overlap quite a bit. In fact, when I started reading Duchess of Bloomsbury, I thought, Haven’t I read this before? But, no, it IS different. It’s just that she write about the same things from different perspectives, and of course this one is the story of her travels.


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