The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street On Self-Education

Q (Quiller-Couch) was all by himself my college education. I went down to the public library one day when I was seventeen looking for books on the art of writing, and found five books of lectures which Q had delievered to his students of writing at Cambridge.

Q was lecturing to young men educated at Eton and Harrow. He therefore assumed that his students―including me―had read Paradise Lost as a matter of course and would understand his analysis of the “Invocation to Light” in Book 9. So I said, “Wait here,” and went down to the library and got Paradise Lost and took it home and started reading it and got to page 3, when I hit a snag: Milton assumed I’d read the Christian version of Isaiah and the New Testament and had learned all about Lucifer and the War in Heaven, and since I’d been reared in Judaism I hadn’t. So I said, “Wait here,” and borrowed a Christian Bible and read about Lucifer and so forth, and then went back to Milton and read Paradise Lost, and then finally got back to Q, page 3. On page 4 or 5, I discovered that the point of the sentence at the top of the page was in Latin and the long quotation at the bottom of the page was in Greek. So I advertised in the Saturday Review for somebody to teach me Latin and Greek, and went back to Q meanwhile, and discovered he assumed I not only knew all the plays of Shakespeare, and Boswell’s Johnson, but also the Second book of Esdras which is not in the Old Testament and not in the New Testament, it’s in the Apocrypha, which is a set of books nobody had ever thought to tell me existed.

So what with one thing and another and an average of three “Wait here’s” a week, it took me eleven years to get through Q’s five books of lectures. – Helene Hanff, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

Just finished the trilogy (84, Charing Cross Road, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, and Q’s Legacy) for our July Mother Culture Community meeting. Great beach reads!

Woman Reading by Samuel Luke Fildes, c 1900

Leave a Reply