by Helene Hanff
Q’s Legacy is the final installment in the Hanff trilogy of books about books. Part memoir, part journal, it is—stick with me here—a book about a book about books. It begins as a memoir of her introduction to the great books through the published lectures of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, the eponymous Q, at whose prompting she bought so many of her treasured books from Marks and Co. This is the back story to the 84, Charing Cross Road phenomenon. She brings the reader up to the moment when she decided to make a book out of her correspondence with Frank Doel at Marks and Co. She then records her experiences with fan mail, fan phone calls (!) and observing the transformation of her book into television and stage adaptations.
Like Hanff, I was introduced to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch as an undergraduate student. I met him in the final pages of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. He is one of the few men she cites without rancour, and she cites his On the Art of Writing in order to underscore the importance of money to a writer: “we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.” Woolf uses him as the punctuating voice for her argument about the significance to the aspiring woman writer of the five hundred pounds a year with which to make use of the room of her own.
The link between Woolf and Hanff resonated often for me. In this memoir, Helene continues to expose the penury of the writing life. As she has in the other books, she tells us exactly how much she makes for her writing. She gives us the appropriate context in which to understand her joy at staying in an apartment in London that has more than one room. Helene did have a room of her own in New York, but it was just the one room. (That room, her “palace,” is so lovingly described in the first chapter that I want to reproduce the passage whole.)
Hanff’s memoir begins with the financial necessity of leaving Temple University after just one year. It is the Depression, and her scholarship has been revoked: “This was a great blow to my parents, but a secret relief to me. In my year at Temple, I’d learned nothing about English literature or the art of writing, which was all I wanted to learn. In the fall I would be free to find my own teacher.”
She heads off to the library, asks where she can find college textbooks on English literature, and is faced with a double aisle of bookshelves: “Standing there, staring at the long shelves crammed with books, I felt myself relax and I was suddenly at peace. I knew who I was and what I was doing there, and I had all day to find what I was looking for.”
I have long envied Helene Hanff her ability to turn a phrase, but what I wouldn’t give to have had that kind of self-possession before turning 20.
She meets Q in the stacks after an epic search. Beginning with A, she searches the whole alphabet, looking for a teacher with the right credentials and the proper scope of the task at hand. How easily her search could have been abandoned!
She finds him, she finds him funny and she finds that he has the right credentials (Oxford-and-Cambridge), so she takes home On the Art of Writing and the first volume of his lectures.
So begins her education from Q, and his legacy is a great one: “I owed him whatever literary education I had—and enough training in the craft of writing to have kept myself alive by it through the sixties. I owed him my shelves full of books—and my choice of Marks & Co. over the … New York bookstores. Wherefore I owed him 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street—and the hundreds if not thousands of friends both books had brought me in the mail and over the phone. It was an awesome legacy for a Cambridge don to have conferred on a lowly pupil he never knew existed three thousand miles away.”
Q is also famously responsible for the phrase “murder your darlings,” which is something I’ve had occasion to say often of late. I invoke the phrase when I have a sentence or a paragraph that I need but am reluctant to strike, and I have always thought of it on that small scale. Helene was also familiar with his particular brand of violence, but she commits it on a far bigger scale. She reports at least half a dozen acts of murder: entire books that go into the incinerator because they do not work. Imagine putting an entire book into the fire. Six times. Murder your darlings, indeed.
I rather like how Helene’s beloved Q stands in counterpoint to Woolf’s despised Professor von X, author of The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex: “His expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained.” In the absence of gods, I find my mind filled with incarnations of other judges, and I have had the image of that wicked nib engraved in my mind since I read Woolf’s description of him.
Helene stopped her search through the alphabet when she found Q, but I like to think that she would have been able to make quick work of von X had she ever had the occasion to meet him.