In the English summer of 1939, Eileen Alexander’s life seemed sun-dappled. A recent graduate of the University of Cambridge and the only daughter in an upper-class Jewish family with powerful political connections, she was beloved in her circle of brilliant friends and embarking on a promising future. Even a hospital stay after being flung from a car could not blight her charmed life; she began a correspondence with the guilt-stricken driver, which quickly blossomed into flirtation, and then romance. As the course of her life shifted abruptly and against her will that year, like the lives of so many at the onset of World War II, Alexander responded with unflappable humor and irrepressible intellect, both of which shine through in Love in the Blitz, a collection of her letters to her paramour and eventual husband.
Alexander’s letters were purchased by chance in an eBay auction, and they detail not only her romance with their recipient but countless other moments of humanity and hopefulness in the face of harrowing circumstances. England was under siege, and Alexander illustrates some of the worst of it: air raid warnings in the night, the stress of being packed with family into a small shelter, the heartache of lost friends and classmates. That Alexander’s sense of humor remained so resolutely intact throughout only serves to highlight the occasional glimpse of sadness or weariness, and you admire her all the more for it.
Alexander’s unassailable wit makes her an accessible narrator, someone in whom we see pieces of our friends, our sisters and, we hope, ourselves. She flirts salaciously with her lover, making references to their “mollocking,” gossips cheerfully and good-naturedly about their friends and offers hysterical observations at every turn. For a book of war correspondence, it’s peculiar to note that it’s a laugh-out-loud sort of work, but Alexander’s candor makes her wartime experience real to us. When she shows up for work only to find her workplace bombed, we feel the impact of that moment as though we’re standing next to her. When she stops in her tracks in one letter to wonder if she will ever forget the things she has seen, we pause with her.
After reading Love in the Blitz, events on the 20th-century world stage no longer seem so removed from our own age. We can only hope to conduct ourselves as Alexander did: with tenacity, optimism, tenderness and a perfect zinger for everything.