Having spent my entire life to that point reading English literature, I deeply connected with the story. I even more deeply related to Hanff’s next book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, where she finally gets to cross the ocean and see the “England of English literature.” As I read I imagined myself taking each step she took. I knew exactly what she felt like every step of the way. The emotions I felt as I read those books were seared in my mind almost as if they were my own memories.
The England of My Imagination is Real After All
About 20 years ago, I read 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, documenting her twenty year correspondence with British bookseller Frank Doel, of Marks & Co. Books.
Even though I was in the middle of those intense parenting years, I hoped that I too would someday get to visit the ‘England of English Literature.’ Always the questions at the back of my mind were the same questions Helene often asked herself: Would I be disappointed when I finally saw England? Could it possibly live up to my imaginings? Would it still be there?
Years rolled by and with them books and then even television shows. My family liked to tease me that I only watched shows which had a chief inspector. Friends went traveling while I stayed home. But I had my books and my chief inspectors.
I went through phase after phase of reading, all centered in Great Britain. I poured over the old Singer Prose and Poetry of England book. I read Samuel Johnson. I read about Richard III first from one perspective (that dastardly villain) and then from another (what a great guy). I read the entire canon of Mr. William Shakespeare. I studied the Plantagenets even though there are so many Matildas and Mauds, Edwards, Henrys, and Richards, that my head hurt. So I studied them again, sometimes even keeping them straight. I read PG Wodehouse and Dorothy Sayers. And then there were The Inklings. When I read of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien taking long walks in the English countryside, my heart broke a little. I longed to walk where they walked. Whenever I read that someone was buried in Westminster Abbey, I was overwhelmed with longing. I wanted to visit my friends in the Poet’s Corner but I didn’t even have a passport.
A few years ago I filled out all the paperwork for my passport — I even had my picture taken — but was never able to finalize the process. Then, in January of this year, with my youngest now in school, God sent a paying job my way. With my second paycheck, I filled out and mailed my passport forms. My friend Jeannette was headed to England for a Charlotte Mason conference but that wasn’t going to happen for me because the estimated date for the passport arrival was after the conference. Still, I was happy I would finally have a passport: ah, the possibilities.
But surprisingly, a few days before Jeannette left for England, my passport arrived. I grabbed the mail from the box as I was pulling out of the drive to take Alex to baseball practice. I cried all the way there, telling him I was fine, that I was just having one of those life moments. I wasn’t going anywhere, but I had a passport.
A week later on Easter Sunday, I was on a plane to London. The extent of my planning was a lifetime of reading, a plane ticket ,and the expectation of meeting up with Jeannette in the Lake District. I had to disembark in London, catch the underground to Euston Station, take the train to Windermere, and a bus or cab to Ambleside. In the most remarkable sequence of my life, I landed in London and without a hitch or a minute to spare, found myself on the train to Windermere. I was exhausted. I should have slept, but how could I? There I was on a train, riding through the English countryside which looked exactly like the English countryside in my mind. Sheep grazed everywhere, boats filled canals, cottages dotted villages, and church spires rose out of the hills. I was not me anymore. I was Roger, Susan,Titty, and John; like Susan,Peter, Edmund and Lucy, riding across the English countryside to worlds unknown: lakes and wardrobes. England was still England after all.
For eight days I traversed England, following my long-legged friend. I saw it all: hosts of daffodils, Mr. McGregor’s garden, Swallowdale, Christ Church, Alice, the Bird and the Baby, the princes in the tower, Robert Burns, and the Rosetta Stone. Ambleside, Oxford, London—a trip planned by an unseen hand.
On my last morning in London, there was one thing I had not seen—84 Charing Cross Road. It is just an address now with a plaque—a monument to books read and longings fulfilled. I threaded my way through Bloomsbury where I was rather miraculously staying a block from where Helene stayed, to Charing Cross Road. I breathlessly snapped a picture of the plaque amongst the early morning London crowd and tried not to sob. I would not have been at all surprised if my tears had filled Charing Cross Road and a mouse had swum by. I had fallen down the rabbit hole of my own imagination only to find that it was all real.
I had been studying for this test since the moment my mother read, “They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace. Christopher Robin went down with Alice.”
Love had brought it all to life. The England of English literature passed the test and so did I.