In October 1949, a brassy New Yorker named Helene Hanff wrote a letter to a staid London bookseller named Frank Doel.
“I am a poor writer,” she told him, “with an antiquarian taste in books.”
She knew exactly what she was looking for: essays by Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Robert Lewis Stevenson. And a Latin Vulgate Bible.
“If you have clean secondhand copies,” she wrote, “for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?”
A month later, and in admirable good faith, a package arrived from London.
“The Stevenson is so fine it embarrasses my orange-crate bookshelves,” Helene wrote back. “I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch.”
Enclosing a five dollar bill and a single for change, she dispatched her response with an added plea for “translated” prices in future:
“I don’t add too well in plain American, I haven’t a prayer of ever mastering bilingual arithmetic.”
Thus commenced a twenty-year correspondence that filled Helene’s shelves and sealed a firm friendship, not only with Frank Doel, but with his wife and daughters, and with the entire staff of the little bookshop at 84, Charing Cross Road.
When Frank died unexpectedly in 1968, Helene was a failed playwright, and an out-of-work screenwriter. She didn’t know where the next paycheck was going to come from; she didn’t know how she was going to pay the rent. The news of Frank’s death came like one blow too many in an already brutal year.
“I began to cry and I couldn’t stop,” she wrote later. “I don’t know at what point in my crying I began to mutter over and over:
“I have to write it. I have to write it.”
Over the next few months, Helene shaped her correspondence with Frank into a story she knew no one would ever publish. But that wasn’t what mattered. Frank’s friendship deserved a memorial; the treasures that crowded her “orange-crate bookshelves” called forth a response.
No one was more surprised than Helene Hanff when 84, Charing Cross Road became a cult classic overnight.Lanier Ivester
It was too long for a short story; too short for a book. But—amazingly—a publisher named Dick Grossman wanted it.
No one was more surprised than Helene Hanff when 84, Charing Cross Road became a cult classic overnight. Fan mail and phone calls poured in from all over the world. A respected English publisher snatched it up; it was made into a BBC television series, a London West End production, a Broadway play, and a major motion picture starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.
Helene’s financial worries were over. She had attained a success of fairytale proportions.
But even that was secondary to the connections she’d made—first in books, then in relationship—to the men and women who shaped her story, who helped articulate who she was in context of noble ideals and generous friendship.
Helene’s debt of love was immeasurable. But the story didn’t end there.
As a matter of fact, it didn’t even begin there.
Back in the 1930s Helene was an aspiring writer with no hope of a college education. The Great Depression was raging, and scholarships were scarce. Helene knew that if she wanted to be a good writer she would have to be taught to be a great reader. And if she wanted teachers, she was going to have to find them herself.
So she went to the most logical place: her local public library.
“What I wanted was the Best,” she wrote. “Written in language I could understand.”
Most of the textbooks were lofty and academic, completely over her head. She sampled the entire alphabet, pulling one book after another, and replacing them in turn with a sinking heart.
When she reached the ‘Qs’ there was only one selection: a thin series of essays by a Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, professor of English Literature at Cambridge University. A quick glance at his bio told her, among other things, that he was a graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, and that to his students at Cambridge (where he still taught), he was known affectionately as ‘Q.’
“If you wanted instruction on how to read and write English, Oxford-and-Cambridge was definitely the Best,” she reasoned.
So she took him home. For the rest of that summer—and for the next several years—she devoted herself to Q’s teachings, taking every scrap of advice to heart, and reading every book he so much as alluded to in his lectures.
Q became her mentor, the Virgil to her Dante, the George MacDonald to her C. S. Lewis, guiding her skillfully and faithfully through the landscape of English literature until it felt like native turf. And it was Q—and the scarcity of his recommendations in American versions—who eventually led her back across the Pond, to a bookseller named Frank Doel, and a little shop at 84, Charing Cross Road.
“I owed [Q] whatever literary education I had,” she wrote, “and enough training in the craft of writing to have kept myself alive by it… I owed him my shelves full of books—Wherefore I owed him 84, Charing Cross Road—and the hundreds, if not thousands of friends [that book] had brought me. It was an awesome legacy for a Cambridge don to have conferred on a lowly pupil he never knew existed three thousand miles away.”
I think that the story of Frank and Helene and Q is a beautiful image of the connections that happen here at the Rabbit Room.
At Hutchmoot last year, my friend Chris Slaten and I presented a session wherein we talked about some of the literary responses to the disenchantments of our age, and I went into how C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and their ilk looked back to the robust sacramentalism of the Medieval period to inform their fantasy novels.
At this moment in time, I’m midway through an undergraduate course in English at Oxford University, and much of the inspiration for my talk came from a Middle English literature class that set my mind on fire in ways I never expected. The greatest joy of my studies has been the connections I’m making between periods of literature and the story of humanity—it’s like I keep bumping into Jesus amid the radiance of medieval manuscripts and the clear heights of antiquity.
And every time I do, I find that one of my heroes has already been there.
I mean, I knew that Lewis and Tolkien were medievalists, and that Dorothy Sayers’ translation of Dante was almost as stupendous a feat as the Comedy itself.
I knew that Charles Williams pulled heavily from medieval thought in his incarnational theology.
But when you go back and find them there, warming their hands, as it were, around the Christ-light that lives at the heart of every good and true and noble thing—well, it’s like showing up at a huge party and realizing that all of your best friends are already there.
'I want to know how you see all these things in books,' she said.Lanier Ivester
The connections between me and my literary heroes—between my literary heroes and each other—happen because we love, and we’re looking for, the Same Thing.
After that Hutchmoot session, a young woman came up to me and looked me right in the eye.
“I want to know how you see all these things in books,” she said.
She was a senior in high school, with dreams of becoming an English major, and she wanted to know, point blank, How do we make these connections between human stories and God’s story?
How do you find Jesus in the books you love?
It was one of the best questions anyone has ever asked me. We chatted briefly about resources and academic examples.
But I told her: “Sweetheart—You’re doing it. The fact that you’re asking means you’re already looking. And I promise you—if you’re looking for Him, in art, literature, the beauty of the world—you will find Him. He’s everywhere.”
As G. M. Hopkins put it, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in eyes and limbs not His…”
Literature—like all of the arts—is either redemptive or it’s destructive. It’s either marked by God’s presence, or it’s haunted by His absence. But you can’t miss Him—even if you have no idea what you’re looking at.
After Jesus fed the 5000, he had His disciples go around and pick up all the leftover pieces of bread “that nothing may be lost.” And, as we all know, those fragments, garnered from five barley loaves that had just fed over 5000 people filled up twelve whole baskets.
I like to think that’s a picture of how the truth-bearing fragments we pick up along the way, the stories and songs by which our own souls are nourished and over which we connect with other people, are exponentially redemptive, generative of a life larger than the poets, songwriters, storytellers and artists could ever had imagined.
And it reminds me what an important work this is—to keep gathering up these fragments—these splinters of a shattered Eden—and sharing them with other people, reminding them, as we do that the Story’s not over.
I was in Oxford last May, and in between lectures and meetings, I basically followed my heroes all over that golden city, keeping trysts I hadn’t had time for on previous visits. I visited Charles Williams’ grave at Holywell. I had tea with friends at The Kilns, and I had tea by myself at the Eastgate Hotel where Jack and Tollers kept their sacrosanct Monday date. I holed up for hours in one of the oak reading bays of Duke Humfrey’s library, and I stumbled into the Oxford Oratory where G. M. Hopkins, of all dear souls, was curate.
On my last day, I skipped a lecture to wander Addison’s Walk, the loved haunt of C. S. Lewis at Magdalen College. There was this muddy little byway branching off of the main walk leading to a stone bench in front of the gate to the Water Meadow, and I sat there in the sunshine for a solid hour contemplating the view of flower-sprinkled mead and golden spires beyond, thinking of all I owed Jack and his friends.
It was so poignant to think that I was in Oxford, that I’d been flashing that university card in and out of colleges and libraries all week, not on my own inspiration or merit, but because my heroes had been here before me.
I was here because they were here—and because they had left something behind for me to trace, to pick up and to carry forward.
Lewis, Tolkien and the others entrusted us with these overflowing baskets of fragments, leftover splendors of a world that was and will be again, truths and beauties upon which they had been fed, and which they, in turn, broke open to feed the world.
This kind of holy generosity calls forth a response, to not only enjoy such deeply incarnational creative acts, but to interact with them, to carry their riches forward in our own lives, to interpret their truths in our own unique voice.
In like manner, from my very first encounter with the Rabbit Room I was goaded with this overwhelming longing to respond. To add an emphatic, “Yes! Me, too!” to the truths and beauties I found here. To roll up my sleeves in the good, hard work of articulating the Kingdom to a broken world.
And to generate that kind of life in another human being—isn’t that the most creative work of all?
But the legacy of the Rabbit Room won’t end with these folks, or even with their works, any more than it started with them. I firmly believe that because they’ve responded to the longings kindled by what they found among the pages of Lewis and Tolkien, Chesterton and George MacDonald, and so many others, that they’re paving the way for other Lewises and Tolkiens and Chestertons to take up the golden thread long after they’re gone.
I can’t help but imagine, someday, ages and ages hence, people coming to Andrew’s Chapter House, or North Wind Manor, or The Well Coffeehouse, making pilgrimage in much the same way as I’d followed Lewis and Hopkins all over Oxford—
Like I’d walked up and down Charing Cross Road in London five years ago, looking for number 84—
I picture these people, people yet-unborn, seeking somehow to connect with a larger story, to respond to the good things this community fostered in some kind of tangible way. But it won’t be Andrew or Eric or Rebecca or Jonathan or Jennifer they’re looking for—it will be the unique glimpse of Jesus which they gave them.
Can’t you just see it? They’ll stoop, pick up a fragment of bread so alive it feels like a hot coal in their hands.
In faithfulness they’ll give thanks, break it—
And that fragment will feed hundreds, if not thousands.
If not more…
This is a transcript from the Rabbit Room Live event in November 2016.