Describing herself as having three strikes against her—being Jewish, a woman and from the north of England—Elaine Feinstein was born Elaine Cooklin in Bootle, Lancashire, on October 24, 1930. She studied English at Cambridge University, earning a B.A. in 1952 and an M.A. in 1955. In 1956 she married Arnold Feinstein. The couple had three sons. Feinstein was a member of the editorial staff of Cambridge University Press (1960–1962); a lecturer in English at Bishop’s Stortford Training College, Hertfordshire (1963–1966); a lecturer in literature at the University of Essex (1967–1970) and a British Council writer in residence in Singapore in 1993. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1980 and has received many awards, including the Daisy Miller Award for Fiction (1971); the Kelus Prize (1978); the Cholmondeley Award for Poets (1990); three Arts Council translation awards and a Society of Authors Travelling Bursary (1992).
Feinstein is the author of a dozen books of poetry, five biographies, three books of translations of poetry and fourteen novels. Even if Feinstein’s novel writing began, as she reports, as an extension of her verse, she is now an acknowledged contemporary British novelist. She writes of the lives of the middle class, with most of her work narrated by women protagonists. Although she records her own experience of antisemitism as being social rather than political and “really very little,” many of her Jewish characters do experience various levels of overt and more subtle antisemitism. In All You Need, for example, Cambridge-educated Nell’s mother reports that she “married one didn’t I?”—a Jew, that is. Her mother explains that Nell’s father’s family “aren’t properly English, are they? I know they were all born here, but it isn’t the same.” Not Jewish, nor fully comfortable with Jews, Nell does feel at home in the smells of her childhood, the smells of the foods of eastern Europe. Nell’s ambiguous “Jewish” identity is contrasted with that of her cousin Mark, whose “public-school cadences … were deliberately anglicised more than her own.” Theo Walloon, Nell’s Jewish lover, understands his own Jewishness as not being based on blood but on his not fitting in anywhere (even in a synagogue in “some judenrein bit of the Midlands”), although—using the Third Reich’s definition of Jewish identity—he recognizes her as sharing something significant with him.
In The Border, Inge and Hans Wendler, a young Jewish couple (although there is a suggestion that Hans’s mother is not Jewish) leave Vienna following the Anschluss. Their escape to Paris, their time there and their flight to the Spanish border are described, and the narrative includes the suicide at the border of their companion, Walter Benjamin. Feinstein uses a range of fictional documents, including Hans’s and Inge’s diaries and Hans’s poetry and letters, as vehicles for the narrative. The novel records the terrible strains and tensions of being refugees in a hostile France (“We were separate because we were Jews and because we were foreigners”) and having their lives and relationship tragically disrupted beyond remedy.
Mother’s Girl is also set against the background of the war. Halina, sent to England as a child refugee from Hungary, makes her way to Cambridge as a student. As an outsider, she speculates that “because I came from central Europe, and the embarrassing curiosity about my being Jewish,” she has become “less probing”—“I came close to escaping the class system altogether.” Feinstein’s own outsider status is used skillfully to convey English class mores. Children of the Rose examines the nature of memory and responsibility as Jewish refugees return to Poland thirty years after the end of the war amid discussions, debates and trials in France of wartime collaboration with the Nazis.
Jewish identity in England is explicated in The Survivors. The novel is set in Feinstein’s native Lancashire; issues of assimilation, acculturation and tradition are portrayed, and the alternatives explored, through the lives of two Jewish immigrant families in a rapidly changing Britain, from World War I, via the Depression and World War II, to the mid-1950s. The granddaughter of a Talmudic scholar, Feinstein grew up in an orthodox Jewish home, and one of the themes of her fiction is religion and spirituality, although not of the orthodox type. (The Ecstasy of Dr. Miriam Garner and The Shadow Master were influenced by Isaac Bashevis Singer.)
Feinstein is best known for her poetry, which conveys a range of emotions and moods, from despair to the blackest humor. Her verse is crisp, direct, sharp and unsentimental. Her themes are relationships (“Separations,” “Bonds”), family (“Birthday,” “Mother”), friendship (“Companionship”), and the balance between engagement and withdrawal. A number of poems deal explicitly with women’s perspectives and Jewish themes. The separation and experiential gaps—linguistic and cultural—between the generations of English Jews (“Rose,” “Against Winter”) are set against the sharing of three generations at the Passover Seder table (“Eclipse”), although precisely what is shared beyond presence at the table remains unclear. “Exile” is the title of three different poems that are dedicated to, and refer to, three differentexperiences of exile. “Annus Mirabilis 1989” gives a sense of the difficulties of understanding the persistence of European antisemitism in a report of a cabaret show in Hungary where laughter and applause are engendered by the stage murder of a Jew. The poem “Allegiance” contrasts the Jewish poet’s love (“taste”) of Israel with her English friend’s tourist responses in a powerful account of Jewish attachments to the country. Her poems powerfully evoke the feel and tenor of those she loves (“Tony,” “Rose”). “Rose,” for example, is a caring and sympathetic portrait of her mother-in-law. A number of poems deal with religion (“Prayer,” “The Celebrants,” “Against Winter”).
Feinstein’s passion for Russian literature led her to publish two volumes of her translations of Marina Tsvetayeva’s poetry and also a well-received biography of this Russian poet. She has also translated the poetry of Margarite Aliger, Yunna Moritz and Bella Akhmadulina. Her work has played a major role in the English-language reception of these writers. Her biography of Pushkin appeared in 1998. This Russian interest has been of central importance to Feinstein’s development as a poet, as she credits the discovery of her “own voice” to the experience of translating poetry from Russian to English. Her Jewish identity too appears to have been intensified by being “English” in Russia aware that being “Jewish” there would be a very different experience.
Feinstein—whose work is included in the Oxford Book of English Verse (edited by Christopher Ricks, 1999)—eloquently explores the tensions of being Jewish and English. She writes of the not quite at-homeness of the English Jews in England and refers to their allegiances to other people and places—to Holocaust survivors and victims, to Israel and Russia, and to family, ceremony, and traditions. But alongside these seeming barriers to full integration in England there is a sustained celebration in her novels and poetry of English literary culture, Cambridge, the freedoms of living in a relatively tolerant society, of England. Feinstein insists that for a Jew it is a “privilege” to live in England.
Poetry In a Green Eye (1966); The Magic Apple Tree (1971); At the Edge (1972); The Celebrants and Other Poems (973); Some Unease and Angels: Selected Poems (1977); The Feast of Euridice (1980); Badlands (1986); City Music (1990); Selected Poems (1994); Daylight (1997); Gold (2000).
The Circle (1970); The Amberstone Exit (1972); The Glass Alembic (1973; as The Crystal Garden, 1974); Children of the Rose (1975); The Ecstasy of Dr. Miriam Garner (1976); The Shadow Master (1978); The Survivors (1982); The Border (1984) Mother’s Girl (1988); All You Need (1989); Loving Brecht (1992); Dreamers (1994); Lady Chatterley’s Confession (1995); Dark Inheritance (2000).
Matters of Chance (1972); The Silent Areas (1980).
Foreign Girls (1993); Winter Meeting (1994).
Radio: Echoes (1980); A Late Spring (1981); A Day Off (1983); Marina Tsvetayeva: A Life (1985); If I Ever Get on My Feet Again (1987); The Man in her Life (1990).
Television: Breath (1975); Lunch (1981); A Brave Face (1985); A Passionate Woman (1990).
Translator, The Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva (1971, revised 1993); Translator, Three Russian Poets: Margarite Aliger, Yunna Moritz, Bella Akhmadulina (1976); Editor, with Fay Weldon. New Stories (1979); Bessie Smith (1986); A Captive Lion: The Life o f Marina Tsvetayeva (1987); Lawrence and the Women: The Intimate Life of D. H. Lawrence (1993); Pushkin: A Biography (1988); Editor, After Pushkin: Versions of the Poems of Pushkin by Contemporary Poets (1999); Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet (2002).
Conradi, Peter. “An Interview with Elaine Feinstein.” Literary Review 1 (April 1982).
Davie, Donald. Under Brigg Flatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain 1960–1988. Manchester and Chicago: 1989.
Lawson, Peter. “Way Out in the Centre: In Conversation with Elaine Feinstein.” Jewish Quarterly 181 (2001).
Schmidt, Michael. “Interview.” PN Review (November–December 1997).
Schmidt, Michael, and Peter Jones, editors. British Poetry since 1970: A Critical Survey. Manchester and New York: 1980.
From Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century. Editor: Sorrel Kerbel. Copyright © 2003. Reproduced by permission of Routledge/Taylor and Francis Books, Inc.