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Elaine Feinstein

October 24, 1930–September 23, 2019

by Paul Morris
Last updated

Elaine Feinstein reading at the Shaar International Poetry Festival in Tel Aviv, 2010. Photo credit Kaido Vainomaa, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Brief

Elaine Feinstein was a major British writer, the preeminent Jewish woman literary author in late 20th- and early 21st-century England, and a leading contemporary European Jewish writer. In her poems, essays, novels, stories, and translations she explored the complexities and contradictions of human experience with an unbridled frankness coupled with deep empathy. Feinstein’s own life as a Jewish woman writer provided the basis for many of her Jewish characters and literary figures as she explored the choices, dilemmas, and challenges faced by modern European Jews after the Holocaust. Secure in her identity as a Jew, this is a solidarity that is European and Ashkenazi based on shared historical rather than religious experience. Her work also explicated the costs of a writerly life to a marriage and family life with a rare, unapologetic, and provocative honesty.

Describing herself as having three strikes against her — being Jewish, a woman, and from the north of England—Elaine Feinstein, an only child, was born Elaine Cooklin in Bootle, Lancashire, on October 24, 1930, and grew up in Leicester. She studied English at Newnham College, Cambridge, earning a B.A. in 1952 and an M.A. in 1955. In 1956 she married Arnold Feinstein and the couple had three sons. Feinstein worked at Cambridge University Press (1960–1962); taught at Bishop’s Stortford Training College, Hertfordshire (1963–1966); and lectured at the University of Essex (1967–1970). She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1980 and has received numerous awards, including the Andrew Kelus Prize (1978); Cholmondeley Award (1990); three Arts Council translation awards, and a Poetry Book Society special commendation for her Collected Poems and Translations (2002). She died on September 23, 2019.

Feinstein was the author of seventeen books of poetry, six biographies, three books of translations of poetry, sixteen novels, and an autobiography. Although Feinstein’s novel writing began as an extension of her verse, she is now both an acknowledged contemporary British novelist and a leading English poet.

Jewish Themes in Feinstein’s Fiction

Feinstein – whose work is included in the Oxford Book of English Verse (edited by Christopher Ricks, 1999) and has been translated into fifteen languages – eloquently explores the tensions of being Jewish and English. She wrote of the not quite at-homeness of the English Jews in England and refered to their allegiances to other people and places – to Holocaust survivors and victims, to Europe, to Israel and Russia, and to family, ceremony, and traditions. But alongside these seeming barriers to full integration in England 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 insisted that for a Jew it is a “privilege” to live in England.

Feinstein explored Jewish identity in England in The Survivors (1982). 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, through 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 (1976) and The Shadow Master (1978) were influenced by Isaac Bashevis Singer.]

Feinstein wrote of the lives of the middle class, often narrated by women protagonists, many of whom are Jewish. Although she believed that the anti-Semitism she herself faced was social, in the sense of it being integral to English social life, rather than political and “really very little,” many of her Jewish characters do experience both overt and more subtle antisemitism. In her novel All You Need (1989), for example, Cambridge-educated Nell’s non-Jewish 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 resolution of the tensions between his Jewish and English identities was reflected in his “public-school cadences” which “were deliberately anglicised more than her own.” Theo Walloon, Nell’s Jewish lover, understands his own Jewishness as being based not 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 (1984), 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. The novel describes their escape to Paris, their time there, and their flight to the Spanish border, as well as 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 (1988) 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,” – “I came close to escaping the class system altogether.” Feinstein’s own outsider status is thus used skillfully to convey English class mores. Children of the Rose (1975) 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. This novel was translated into Hebrew in 1984.

Poetry & Russian Literature

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 [encyclopedia_glossary_term:377]Passover[/encyclopedia_glossary_term] [encyclopedia_glossary_term:391]Seder[/encyclopedia_glossary_term] table (“Eclipse”), although precisely what is shared beyond presence at the table remains unclear. Three different poems entitled “Exile” are dedicated to, and refer to, different experiences of exile. “Annus Mirabilis 1989” gives a sense of the difficulties of understanding the persistence of European anti-Semitism in a report of a cabaret show in Hungary where the stage murder of a Jew engenders laughter and applause. 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. Feinstein’s 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”). In Talking to the Dead (2007), the poems both create a powerful sense of the presence of the dead, mainly her deceased husband, Arnold, and convey an equally powerful and profound sense of absence and immense loss.

Feinstein had four Russian grandparents and felt drawn to the country and its literature and history. Her passion for Russian literature led her to publish two volumes of her translations of Marina Tsvetayeva’s poetry and a well-received biography of this non-Jewish Russian poet. She 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 and helped secure their place in the history of European literature. Her biography of Pushkin appeared in 1998. This Russian interest and her experiences there were of central importance to Feinstein’s development as a poet, as she credited 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. In her last novel, The Russian Jerusalem (2008), the protagonist, an English Jewish writer in Russia, meets Jewish and other writers of the Soviet era amid the terror of their often tragic and premature deaths.

Autobiography

Feinstein’s autobiography, It Goes with The Territory (2013), is an exhilarating admixture of poetry, reflection, and prose that articulates the heavy costs of the writer’s life on marriage, family, and relationships. Here we also find the fullest account of her Jewish experience, from antisemitism at school, where she was the only Jew in her final year, through an intensification of Jewish identification in response to the news of the camps and the extent of the Holocaust, to her oft-repeated and somewhat apologetic contention that prejudice against Jews is not a major concern in England. In her view, Jewish life and love, still shaped by the Holocaust, continue positively and relentlessly in its wake. Her strongly cultural Jewish identity was not religious, and her recollections of spending Shabbat in synagogue were of boredom and a conviction that “God did not seem to be there.” She recorded a conversation with her local hapless rabbi and his uncertainties on our heavenly future contrasting this with her literary certainty of the continuity of the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures. As a writer brought up outside of the Christian tradition, she acutely and correctly identified the Christo-centricity of much English literature in that all Christian narratives end happily, and highlighted the perplexities for a Jew after the Shoah in having to necessarily master some theology in order to develop an appreciation of literature. Just as she claimed to have only experienced minimal antisemitism, she often made a similar claim about class prejudice. The reader is struck by the importance of her friendships with other writers and the ongoing significance of Russia and Russian writers in her life.

Feinstein adapted her fiction and written original works for the theatre, radio and television.

Selected Works by Elaine Feinstein

Poetry

In a Green Eye (1966).

The Magic Apple Tree (1971).

At the Edge (1972).

The Celebrants and Other Poems (1973).

Some Unease and Angels: Selected Poems (1977).

The Feast of Euridice (1980).

Badlands (1986).

City Music (1990).

Selected Poems (1994).

Daylight (1997).

Gold (2000).

Collected Poems and Translations (2002).

Talking to the Dead (2007).

Cities (2010).

Portraits (2015).

The Clinic, Memory: New and Selected Poems (2017).

Novels

The Circle (1970).

The Amberstone Exit (1972).

The Glass Alembic (1973).

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).

The Russian Jerusalem (2008).

Biography

Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues (1986).

A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetayeva (1987).

Lawrence and the Women: The Intimate Life of D. H. Lawrence (1993).

Pushkin: A Biography (1988).

Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet (2002).

Anna of all the Russias: A Life of Anna Akhmatova (2005).

Short Stories

Matters of Chance (1972).

The Silent Areas (1980).

Plays

Foreign Girls (1993).

Winter Meeting (1994).

Lear's Daughters (with the Women's Theatre Group).

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).

Foreign Girls (1993).

A Winter Meeting (1994).

Lawrence’s Women in Love (1996).

Lady Chatterley’s Confession, Book at Bedtime (1996).

Television:

Breath (1975).

Lunch (1981).

A Brave Face (1985).

A Passionate Woman (1990).

Translations

The Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva (1961; 1971; 1987; 1993).

Bride of Ice: New Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (2009).

Three Russian Poets: Margarite Aliger, Yunna Moritz, Bella Akhmadulina (1976).

Other

New Stories 4 (1979) co-edited with Fay Weldon.

After Pushkin: Versions of the Poems of Pushkin by Contemporary Poets (1999), edited.

Bibliography

Cheyette, Bryan. Contemporary Jewish Writers in Britain and Ireland. London: Peter Halban, 1998.

Conradi, Peter. “Elaine Feinstein: Life and Novels.” Literary Review (April 1982): 24-25.

Couzyn, Jeni, ed. The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets. Newcastle Upon Tyne, England: Bloodaxe Books: 1985.

Davie, Donald. Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain 1960–1988. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Dugdale, Sasha. “A Conversation with Elaine Feinstein.” Wasafiri 29/3 (2014) 56-61.

Kenyon, Olga. Writing Women: Contemporary Women Novelists. London: Pluto, 1991.

Lassner, Phyllis. Anglo-Jewish Women Writing the Holocaust: Displaced Witnesses. London: Palgrave, 2008.

Lawson, Peter. “Way Out in the Centre: In Conversation with Elaine Feinstein.” Jewish Quarterly 181 (2001).

Lawson, Peter. Anglo-Jewish Poetry from Isaac Rosenberg to Elaine Feinstein. Vallentine Mitchell, 2006.

Elaine Feinstein Papers, Manchester University Library.

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How to cite this page

Morris, Paul. "Elaine Feinstein." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 3, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/feinstein-elaine>.