Love in the Blitz: The Greatest Lost Love Letters of the Second World War
by Eileen Alexander (HarperCollins, $40)
Reviewed by Penny Hartill
"Whichever way the verdict goes, please remember that I feel, absolutely certainly and sincerely, that the accident was not down to your carelessness but to pure chance, and I owe you nothing but profound gratitude for the friendship and loyalty you have shown me during all these weeks of illness." So begins the courtship of Eileen Alexander, daughter of one of Central Europe's principal (and immensely wealthy) Jewish families – freshly graduated with a brilliant First in English from Cambridge's Girton College – and Gershon Ellenbogen, a Jewish researcher at the same university.
Oswyn Murray, author of the book's foreword, claims Alexander was a feminist, which would be seem to be in dispute. After all, she suffered a broken nose and collarbone in the accident, endured months of rehab and considerable pain, yet forgave him entirely.
Alexander though, is whippet-smart, revealed in the more than 1400 letters written almost daily to Ellenbogen between 1939 and 1947, covering their years of courtship, separation during the war through to their reunion and marriage. After the war, Alexander completed some significant literary work, including the translation of Simenon's novels but, given her letters were rescued from obscurity on eBay by the book's co-editor David McGowan, it seems unlikely she wrote them with publication in mind. Yet, as Murray suggests, her letters created "a new literary genre with a multiple purpose. Firstly, to enmesh the beloved in her life, to keep him engaged with herself ... and secondly to create an intensely personal narrative."
This latter point is perhaps the principle pleasure of the book: written in first person and in the present tense, the frustrations and tumultuous nature of love and living in the everyday during World War II are so vivid.
Alexander has a brilliant wit. At the synagogue, she gazes at some bulky newlyweds: "There they were – their outsized Sam Browns straining at the buckles – Her vast Bosom jutting
outwards like the Prow of a Great Ship – their faces having some of the Spherical Benignity of the Moon."
There is a diary-like outpouring in which she relives her days. The razor-sharp wit is interspersed with observations, confessions and pleas for fidelity, bringing home the pain of wartime separation and the intensity of young love: "Please don't be bored with me, dear. (Pause – for more crying.)" "Oh! God. I feel as if my brain were bursting through the bones of my skull. Please love me, darling, I think I'm nicer on the days when I'm sure that you love me."
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"I wonder what anyone would think if they suddenly came across my letters to you and started reading them. They'd say, 'This girl never lived 'til she loved.' And it would be true, darling. Until I loved you, I was in the process of undergoing intellectual and emotional dry-rot."
Perhaps then, we can say Alexander's letters are a female rather than a feminist fashion of the war; revealing the universality of a yearned-for future, while being suspended in time.