Once in a while, just at the right moment, a truly gorgeous real-life love story appears out of the blue, or in this case out of a chance purchase on eBay. Thanks to a serendipitous sequence of connections, including a perspicacious dealer and a fast-moving literary agent, the wonderful (and superlatively edited) seat-of-the-pants romance of Eileen Alexander and fellow Cambridge student Gershon Ellenbogen has been saved from oblivion.
Having survived a serious car accident on the eve of World War Two with her only-just-platonic friend Gershon at the wheel, Eileen begins writing him some of wartime’s funniest, most unexpected and possibly unintentionally sexiest letters as she reports on her convalescence. During the unfolding correspondence of some 14,000 letters over six years, liberated in tone from any self-conscious intention of future publication, the brilliant but tentative young English literature graduate seduces and hopes to secure for romantic perpetuity the man she already knows she loves ‘on the other side of idolatry’.
During the first few illusory months of the Phony War, the friends manage to meet; but as the war gathers momentum Gershon is posted abroad with the RAF and Eileen, having recovered, volunteers for work at the War Office, so the letters enable the relationship to move towards declarations of love and maybe more. Living at home in Primrose Hill, she occupies a state of ‘emotional claustrophobia’ with her intellectual, eccentric, opinionated Italian-Jewish and Polish-Jewish parents, a nanny, two young, annoying brothers and an aunt ‘with a boil in some remote and unmentionable zone’.
In her almost daily communications Eileen describes for Gershon her distinguished boss and her lust-deprived colleagues. She eavesdrops in buses, shops and air-raid shelters and overhears exchanges in ladies’ cloakrooms concerning the discrepancy in coupons required for ‘open or closed French knickers’. In the Savoy hotel she observes the ‘spat and polished guardsmen and flat-chested ladies of leisure and unimpeachable virtue’. In the National Gallery an acquaintance displays a ‘bosom of the majesty of the Niagara Falls’ and Eileen witnesses a fight in the street between an Italian waiter and a ‘desiccated’ woman wielding ‘an enormous pot of beer’.
Never far from quoting her favorite poets, among them Donne, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, Eileen has an insatiable eye for funny stories amid the strange circumstances of war. There are echoes of intimate, Mitfordian shorthand — ‘mollicking’ stands for kissing, ‘wantonness’ for copulation and ‘wild oats’ describes those who are rather too free with their favors — and a touch of the self-deprecating, self-doubting Bridget Jones about her.
Putting her foot in it with her out-spoken grittiness, an Emma Woodhouse is also at work here as Eileen relishes, encourages and prudishly disapproves of romances that acquire a peculiar concentration during wartime lockdown. Her best friend Joan leads a life ‘like one of those electric toasters that keep shooting out pieces of toast which hit you in the eye’ and to whom calamities cling ‘like lichens on a rock’. Crazy about a Canadian officer who unfortunately has a wife and child back home, Joan despairs when the liaison ends, entangling herself instead with dubious Robert, about whom Eileen is wary. Speaking her mind to her own impulsive Harriet, Eileen thereby jeopardizes a precious friendship.
But there is nothing coy about her urgency to discuss the delicious sex life that will be hers and Gershon’s once their separation is over, as she laments the deficiency of her flat chest and promises that peppermints will disguise her taste for cigarettes when the time arrives for kissing.
Beneath the heady intoxication of romance, however, the stress of an unending, cacophonous war threatens to topple her. As London falls under constant bombardment and becomes what she sees as T.S. Eliot’s ‘Unreal City’, she feels like a ‘dead leaf lying on the ground or an old chimney cowl revolving aimlessly in the wind’. When St Paul’s suffers a direct hit in October 1940 she senses ‘the monuments and symbols of our stability have been bruised’, fearful that after the war is over her world will look ‘new and strange’.
Becoming increasingly aghast at the ominous talk from Germany of Jewish persecution, her writing is at its most beautiful as she yearns for the Wordsworthian care-freedom of the Scottish landscape, when ‘to be young was very heaven’ and the sound of river water was ‘almost more hushed than silence’. But during the earthquake of war and at other moments of national catastrophe when loneliness, fear and uncertainty can bring despair, flares of hope and Eileen’s discovery of the ‘core of warm serenity’ found in letters, in reciprocated love and within inspirational people can reverse the mood. These are such letters, theirs was such a love and Eileen Alexander such a delicious inspiration.