Lusty letters and the love of a good mollocking

Lusty letters and the love of a good mollocking: Fascinating history book delves into passionate wartime correspondence between lovers

  • A fascinating history book reflects on Eileen Alexander who lived in London
  • She wrote thousands of letters to Cambridge postgraduate Gershon Ellenbogen 
  • Pair who had strict Jewish families, used ‘mollocking’ as code for sexual foreplay
  • They married in 1944, and lived happily until Eileen died of lung cancer in 1986  



by Eileen Alexander (William Collins £20, 496 pp)

At a Berkshire crossroads on June 29, 1939, a young Cambridge postgraduate, Gershon Ellenbogen, crashed his car into a passing vehicle, hurling his passenger, Eileen Alexander, who had just gained a first from Girton, out onto the tarmac.

She broke her nose and collarbone, damaged her teeth and eye-socket, and was in hospital for weeks.

Far from ending the friendship, that car accident was a catalyst for love. In this extraordinarily vivid and eloquent collection of Eileen’s passionate letters to Gershon from that convalescence onwards, we watch their love story and the world’s war story unfold over the next six years.

A collection of wartime love letters reveals the relationship between Eileen Alexander from London and Cambridge postgraduate Gershon Ellenbogen. Pictured: A soldier giving his wife a kiss during the Second World War

Only Eileen’s side of the correspondence has survived, and that by chance: this stash of a thousand of her wartime letters to Gershon turned up recently on eBay and was saved for the nation by editor David McGowan.

These are not, perhaps, the kind of love letters you or I might write. They are the wordy outpourings of a virginal 1940s bluestocking, her body aching with unsatisfied desires for the paragon of her dreams.

Both she and Gershon came from strict Jewish families, so there was no chance even of spending a night under the same roof in a boarding house in Blackpool during Gershon’s leave from the RAF. If they did such a thing, Eileen wrote, ‘my father will never speak to me again’.

How constricted was the life of a 23-year-old daughter of pushy, wealthy parents in the 1940s! She was stuck at home with her tyrannical, bad-tempered father, her fretting, bossy mother, and her two younger brothers.

‘There’s nowhere in the world where one is so suffocated by Family as in an air-raid shelter,’ she writes, preferring to risk death in her own bed than be with her snoring father all night.

Eileen became a civil servant in the Air Ministry — a dull job, with a chauvinist boss, Mr Crotch, who casually remarked about the typists, ‘The poor girls hardly earn enough to keep body and camisole together’, but at least this meant she could get out during the daytime, travelling between London’s Hampstead and Moorgate.

LOVE IN THE BLITZ by Eileen Alexander (William Collins £20, 496 pp)

At home, there wasn’t much privacy even in Eileen’s bedroom. Her mother came in one evening in her nightdress to reprimand her: ‘That you should smoke like that with your fiancé risking his life is not only unpatriotic, it’s Disappointing.’

Note Eileen’s capital ‘D’ for ‘Disappointing’. She has a few stylistic habits that can grate over 450 pages, and one of them is her use of capital letters, such as ‘Living in Sin’.

Gershon must have liked it, though, as he went on to propose to her. They married in 1944, and lived happily ever after until she died of lung cancer in 1986.

The only time she drops the capital-letters habit is when she’s in a really heightened state of emotion — on the day her office was bombed, or when pouring out her love in a deeply bleak mood mid-war: ‘I’m oppressed with the frightening knowledge that I can’t do without you, my darling love.’

She calls Gershon ‘darling’ or ‘my sweet love’ in almost every sentence as she pours out the Goings On in London while he’s posted to Egypt.

Their code word for sexual foreplay is ‘mollocking’ — a word coined by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm. It has to be one of the most unsexy-sounding words ever invented for this purpose. ‘Darling,’ she writes, ‘shall I have to learn to mollock all over again — or is it an art that is Never Forgotten — like swimming?’

With Gershon, she finds true peace and repose, ‘like the wonderful restfulness that follows a terrifically excited mollock’.

We leave her in 1946, the very happily married mother of baby Kate.

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