With all the discussion of whether British behavior in the Colonies justified the Revolutionary War, I can’t help being reminded of an exchange in one of my favorite books, 84, Charing Cross Road:
August 15, 1959
i write to say i have got work.
i won it. i won a $5,000 Grant-in-Aid off CBS, it’s supposed to support me for a year while I write American History dramatizations. I am starting with a script about New York under seven years of British Occupation and i MARVEL at how i rise above it to address you in friendly and forgiving fashion, your behavior over here from 1776 to 1783 was simply FILTHY.
Is there such thing as a modern-English version of the Canterbury Tales? I have these guilts about never having read Chaucer but I was talked out of learning Early Ango-Saxon/-Middle English by a friend who had to take it for her Ph.D. They told her to write an essay in Early Anglo-Saxon on any-subject-of-her-own-choosing. “Which is all very well,” she said bitterly, “but the only essay subject you can find enough Early Anglo-Saxon words for is ‘How to Slaughter a Thousand Men in a Mead Hall.’ ”
She also filled me in on Beowulf and his illegitimate son Sidwith — or is it Widsith? she says it’s not worth reading so that killed my interest in the entire subject, just send me a modern Chaucer.
love to nora.
2nd September, 1959Miss Helene Hanff
305 East 72nd Street
New York 21, New York
We are all delighted to hear that you’ve won a Gran-in-Aid and are working again. We are prepared to be broadminded about your choice of subject matter, but I must tell you that one of the young inmates here confessed that until he read your letter he never knew that England had ever owned “the States.”
With regard to Chaucer, the best scholars seem to have fought shy of putting him into modern English, but there was an edition put out by Longmans in 1934, the Canterbury Tales only, a modernized version by Hill, which I believe is quite good. It is (of course!) out of print and I am trying to find a nice clean secondhand copy.
For those who love books, there are few better reads out there than this unlikely best seller consisting of the correspondence between a struggling New York writer and a London used book store in the twenty years from 1949 to 1969. Also wonderful for the book lover is Hanff’s later Q’s Legacy, in which she talks about her lifelong fascination with books that led to the 84 Charing Cross Road, and what followed from the book’s unexpected success.