84 Charing Cross Road and the lost art of letter writing

Stuart Grant

The age of advanced communication technology has given us much. In doing so, it has made staying in touch easier, cheaper and faster. But as with every such change, some of our culture is incrementally lost. Convenience has costs, some of which are incalculable. The quality of our cursive writing being one.

When you offer written condolences about the loss of a loved one, do you dare do so over e-mail or text or, God forbid, social media? Doing so seems cheap and tacky compared to the bygone world of personal letter writing. Have you forgotten the heightened anticipation from receiving a personally addressed, stamped and handwritten letter from someone you care about?

We have lost something cherished by abandoning personally written letters in favor of cheap and easy electronic alternatives. The knowledge that a human hand touched and etched the parchment addressed uniquely to us is a forgotten joy. You can rediscover that time by watching 84 Charing Cross Road on Netflix.

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84 Charing Cross road movie posterWikimedia Commons

The film is an adaptation of the non-fiction book by Helene Hanff. The plot begins with Helene’s answering an ad in the Saturday Review of Literature by antiquarian bookseller, Marks and Company, located at the address of the title in London, England. Helene finds a few titles she has long sought after and places an order. Impressed by the quality of the books she receives, Helene expresses her appreciation, striking up a lively correspondence with company manager, Frank Doel.

Over time, Doel’s wife and other Marks and Company employees are drawn into the correspondence based on a deep love of literature and rare books. As their letter writing friendship develops, each exchange takes on greater meaning with the passage of time. As their ties deepen, the characters share their thoughts on the current events of the day. In a show of appreciation, Helene sends the Doel family a care package of non-perishable food to alleviate post WW2 shortages.

With each successive letter and package, the writers’ joy at receiving a personally written letter is more deeply felt. The introverted Doel, played masterfully by Anthony Hopkins, is a delightful contrast to brassy New York script reader, Helene Hanff, endearingly portrayed by Anne Bancroft. Both actors successfully reflect the inner longings that the exchange of letters produces. Their wistfulness of unrequited affection inspired by their correspondence is heartfelt.

The film revisits a time when long distance calling was an expensive luxury. Before our era of advanced communication technology, when staying in touch meant the art of the personally written letter. A medium that, by its very existence, tells the recipient of their importance in the writer’s heart. Return to the heartfelt anticipation of opening your mailbox to see a handwritten letter addressed uniquely to you at 84 Charing Cross Road.

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