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Love among the ruins

Books | By Lucy Lethbridge

Love in the Blitz: The Greatest Lost Love Letters of the Second World War

By Eileen Alexander, edited by David McGowan and David Crane

William Collins £20

Eileen Alexander, a writer and translator (best known for translating some of the Maigret novels), died in 1986, and the letters were sold as part of a house clearance following the death of her widower, Gershon Ellenbogen, in 2003. David McGowan found himself in possession of a vast cache of correspondence, from 1939 to 1948, from Eileen to Gershon.

She was in London and he was serving in the RAF in Cairo. McGowan wrote to the classical scholar Oswyn Murray, who appeared in the letters as a toddler in 1943, riding a camel made of cushions at the Murray family home. Here is Eileen’s characteristic description of the encounter: ‘Rudolph Valentino never Streaked across the Desert more Wildly & Gloriously.’

Murray (who has provided a vivid foreword) took up the baton enthusiastically. Eileen had worked for his father, Sir James Murray, at the Air Ministry during the war. Daunted when McGowan sent him nearly 2,000 letters, Murray suggested a substantial weeding of what the historian David Crane describes in his introduction as ‘an unstoppable flow of words’. But the letters form a discernible arc of experience.

In 1939, Eileen, the daughter of wealthy, cosmopolitan, intellectually ambitious Jewish parents, had just graduated from Girton with a First in English, and was determined to continue her researches in Arthurian romance. It was a sheltered life – as the war progressed, she encountered little material hardship, while lunches at the Ritz continued unabated – but it also brought Eileen into contact with some of the more interesting figures of wartime London, in particular the leading lights of the Zionist movement.

The Alexander family stayed in St John’s Wood throughout the Blitz – by which time Eileen had secured a job working for her father’s friend Lord Nathan at the War Office’s new welfare department. She also worked for Leslie Hore-Belisha. She seems startlingly naïve although, quite understandably, extremely preoccupied with sex. She was a romantic; her favourite book was C S Lewis’s The Allegory of Love, and she watched with rather touching superiority more pragmatic manoeuvres into prosperous marriages made by her friends Joan and Joyce.

Other people’s love letters are mostly for other people – so the best bits are when Eileen emerges from her raptures and looks outwards. I enjoyed her sharp vignettes of Jewish life. A rabbi came to direct her mother how to mourn correctly for her brother. ‘When he got home, he remembered yet another [rule] & he telephoned to tell my mother that she must on no account wear leather on her feet.’

I enjoyed her account of the Nathans, each with their butter ration marked with a flag. She met Michael Foot, then working at the Evening Standard: ‘I wasn’t impressed.’ F R Leavis ‘in the flesh drains his pupils dry as hay’. Another letter admiringly recounts a conversation in the blackout with Orde Wingate, who had fervently taken up the Zionist cause. He said that sexual love was all about ‘pressure’; he shared her interest in medieval courtly love traditions, and ‘We argued and danced round one another and side-stepped.’

Murray calls Eileen ‘a supreme writer of modern literary prose’, which seems to me to be over-egging it. Highly self-conscious, she is forever batting her fan at Gershon, smothering her prose in lover-like euphemism. Which is great if you’re the lover but not all that gripping if you’re the gooseberry. She also has a taste for arch capitalisations that Got On My Nerves: ‘I forgot to tell you that the Great Bond between Captain Wingate & me was that all his Great Thoughts came in the bath as well. He says it’s a Heritage from [a] Man Who Found his Own Level – and rushed out into the street to Tell Everybody All.’

The editorial dramatis personae include only a few of the enormous cast of characters – so the reader may be bewildered by the gang who come and go without explanation. The notes tell us who Chekhov is, but what about Hamish, Charlotte, Nurse, Sheila and all the rest?

Gershon and Eileen married in 1944, in St John’s Wood synagogue – and, miraculously, her capital letters almost completely disappeared, releasing the mature prose writer she went on to become from the clever but mannered ingénue of the war years.

This story was from May 2020 issue. Subscribe Now