As we endure the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic – with its attendant “Groundhog Day” ennui, its frustrations and intermittent panics – performing a particular thought experiment can be both enlightening and consoling. Imagine yourself transported back in time to September 1939; almost six years of the Second World War is coming down the historical pike toward you. That would be so much worse than this crisis, surely? The displacement and upheaval in our ordinary lives that we’re experiencing today can’t be remotely similar to the massive, unforeseen turbulence that the world went through then – surely?
As if in response to these questions, this book charts those years of war almost precisely. Love in the Blitz covers the passage of time from the summer of 1939 to 1946 in the form of a series of love letters written by a young woman, Eileen Alexander, to her lover, Gershon Ellenbogen. It makes for a fascinating subjective account of an individual life over these years, unfiltered by any ambitions of literary posterity or knowingness.
The frankness and guilelessness of these letters grant them an astonishing authenticity. This book can rank with Joan Wyndham’s wonderful youthful journals of the blitz, Love Lessons, as an account of those terrible weeks and months of 1940 and 41 that sweeps away the accumulated myths and nationalistic hogwash that fond, retro-fitted hindsight has bestowed. This is the news from the domestic front line: personal, unique, unexpurgated, without propaganda, as it unfolded and was experienced.
A fascinating subjective account of an individual life over the W.W. II years, unfiltered by any ambitions of literary posterity or knowingness.
The provenance of these letters makes for a good tale. One of the eventual editors of this book, David McGowan, was buying random collections of letters on spec on eBay. This cache that he came across – amounting to some 1,400 letters in total – had been retrieved from a house-clearance sale. After a bit of to-and-fro with the seller he managed to acquire them all. Having read through them, he contacted a member of one of the families mentioned in the correspondence, Oswyn Murray, who approached a literary agent that he knew, the late Felicity Bryan. She thought the letters had the making of an extraordinary book. A selection was made, edited, sold to a publisher and so Love in the Blitz came to be.
A Match Made in Cambridge
Eileen Alexander, born in 1917, was the eldest child of a wealthy intellectual Jewish family based in Cairo. The Alexanders were rich enough to have a house in London and in Scotland, where they escaped the heat of Cairo’s scorching summers. Eileen went to Girton College, Cambridge, in the mid 1930s, where she read English. She became friends with a postgraduate student, also Jewish, called Gershon Ellenbogen.
They were just good friends until a car accident jolted them into romance. Gershon was driving, was blinded by a sun flash, and crashed into another car. Eileen, sitting beside him, was thrown out of the vehicle and quite badly injured. During her convalescence (in the summer of 1939) something clicked and the love affair began – and this is when the letters commence.
The correspondence is entirely one-sided. All Gershon’s letters are lost but he assiduously kept Eileen’s to him. It may seem a disadvantage only to have one side of a love affair, but in fact this anomaly makes the story of Eileen and Gershon’s romance novelistic. It becomes a first-person narrative of a kind of epistolary roman-fleuve.
Eileen’s voice – intelligent, allusive, iconoclastic, captivatingly intense – tells Gershon about everything she’s doing. How the war is progressing; what it’s like being in London during the blitz; who she meets; what she’s reading; what she’s thinking. Gershon is largely absent – first in the RAF and eventually posted to Cairo to work in military intelligence. Eileen uses the letters almost as a kind of lure, or a tether, to hold him close to her. Don’t allow your eye to wander; don’t betray me; listen to me; I am the person you truly love. These are the unspoken messages beneath the expertly rendered texture of the routines of her daily life in London working for the Air Ministry.
It may seem a disadvantage only to have one side of a love affair, but in fact this anomaly makes the story of Eileen and Gershon’s romance novelistic.
Evelyn Waugh once scolded his wife, Laura, for her uninspired wartime letters to him, odiously reminding her: “A letter need not be a bald chronicle of events … I simply am not interested in Bridget’s children. Do grasp that. A letter should be a form of conversation; write as though you were talking to me.” Gershon would have no need to rebuke Eileen for any similar failing. Her voice is absolutely, beguilingly conversational – and she was reputedly a great conversationalist in life. The letters are witty, clever, subversive, candid:
I have just heard from the mother of a friend of mine, who is a Cameron Highlander … that he has been issued with a pair of gas-proof pants to wear under his kilt. (The official army name is “proofed nether garments”) … Let it not be said that England doesn’t look after her warrior sons.”
“I bore my mother away to the West End to see Gone With the Wind, which, darling, is unendurably long … All its shoddy melodrama stands out far more glaringly on the screen than in the pages of the book.”
Apart from its many incidental pleasures, Love in the Blitz will probably be remembered as an articulate act of witness to one slice of British life over the course of the Second World War – a kind of one-woman Mass Observation project that brings those years vividly alive.
The letters that Eileen devotes to the blitz are both harrowing and revelatory. Perhaps no nation is as prone to mythologizing its past than Britain – catastrophic failures become undying endorsements of pluck and sangfroid. Eileen reconnects feet firmly to the ground and allows the reader to contemplate the blunt reality of what life was actually like.
During one bombing raid in September 1940 she seeks cover in a shelter near Leicester Square:
Somebody said – inevitably – “What do you think of it all?” which provoked a violent outburst from a tight-lipped, desiccated, genteel old woman sitting beside me. “If you’d been in the East End,” she said bitterly, “you’d know what to think of it all. “The spirit of the people is fine”, the papers say … It’s all very well for people like you.” She turned angrily to me – (I had asked her if it would be all right to smoke – and she obviously thought I was a flibberty chip of a Mayfair block). “If one of your houses gets blown down you can go to another – but the poor folk lose their homes & their families and then they’re left to shift for themselves. Ask them if they want peace. They’re crying out for it – craving for it – they want to live.”
The testimony of these letters rings with similar verities – both personal and public. Eileen died in 1986. This book is her splendid and enduring memorial.
William Boyd is the author of several books, including the upcoming novel Trio