Elaine Feinstein, Poet, Novelist and Biographer, Dies at 88

Elaine Feinstein, a multifaceted British poet, novelist and biographer who found inspiration in her Jewish heritage and the work of female Russian poets, died on Sept. 23 in London. She was 88.

Her son Adam said the cause was cancer.

Ms. Feinstein published more than a dozen poetry collections, full of evocative, accessible poems about remembrance, loss, relationships, historical figures, struggles from her own life and simple pleasures. “At Seven a Son” (1966), for instance, described a boy on a swing:

as he flies up

(his hair like long

black leaves) he

lies back freely

astonished in

sunshine as serious

as a stranger he is

a bird in his own thought.

She was also known for translating the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), whose work she found particularly inspiring, and which influenced her own.

“Tsvetaeva enabled me to write openly,” Ms. Feinstein told Poetry Nation Review in 1997. “Because she doesn’t feel embarrassed about sounding undignified.”

Ms. Feinstein wrote 15 novels, beginning with “The Circle” in 1970. Some drew on her Jewish heritage; all four of her grandparents were Jewish and had emigrated from Ukraine, settling in northern England.

“The Border” (1985) was about two Jewish intellectuals traveling across Europe in 1938 to escape Hitler’s persecutions. Bruce Allen, writing in The Chicago Tribune, called it “a book of great formal beauty, moral radiance and emotional power.”

Ms. Feinstein often explored the relationship between being Jewish and being English — the “not quite at-homeness of the English Jews in England,” as Paul Morris put it in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. Ever present with her was the knowledge that had her ancestors settled in Germany rather than England, her life might have been very different.

“My Jewish upbringing was a source of strength,” she told The Guardian in 1988. “Being Jewish has been so terrible for so many people, but it hasn’t been terrible for me.”

Elaine Barbara Cooklin was born on Oct. 24, 1930, in Bootle, north of Liverpool, to Isidore and Fay (Compton) Cooklin. Her father was trained as a cabinet maker and operated wood shops. Her mother was, as Ms. Feinstein wrote in “It Goes With the Territory: Memoirs of a Poet” (2013), “a good, kind woman who dabbed my spots with calamine lotion when I had chickenpox and tried to turn me into a respectable young lady,” though she herself preferred a tomboy persona.

Elaine grew up in Leicester, in central England. She wrote her first poems as a schoolgirl and found the publication of one of them to be life-changing.

“The excitement of seeing that poem in the school magazine hooked me for life in an addiction as dangerous as any other,” she wrote in her memoir.

Just as formative was the time, when she was 6 or 7, that her father failed to pick her up at school as usual. Traumatized, she made her way home alone and discovered an ambulance there, taking her mother away. Her mother had had a life-threatening miscarriage, and Elaine had been forgotten in the panic.

“I suppose this was when I first realized I would have to confront the world on my own,” she told the British newspaper The Independent in 1994. “Perhaps it’s as well for a protected child to be shaken awake like that, to realize that the world is out there, dangerous and ready to impinge.”

In 1949 she was admitted to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she earned an English degree in 1952 and a master’s degree three years later. She married Arnold Feinstein, a molecular biologist, in 1956. They lived in Cambridge for many years, hosting well-known writers at their home as Ms. Feinstein became more prominent in the literary world.

She was on the editorial staff of Cambridge University Press in the early 1960s and taught at several institutions. In 1966 she published her first poetry collection, “In a Green Eye,” and she brought out new volumes regularly for the next four decades; her 12th, “Cities,” was published in 2010.

That collection draws on her world travels, but she also found subject matter close to home and to her heart.

“Some time after my husband retired,” she said, introducing her poem “Wheelchair” on a recording, “I was appointed writer in residence to the University in Singapore, and we decided to spend some months in the Far East. Just before we set out, though, my husband broke his ankle on a slippery pavement outside a do-it-yourself shop. But he very obstinately decided he was still going to come to Singapore. It was a very happy experience.”

In the poem, she wrote:

the most surprising feature of the perils we have passed

is you’ve traveled in a wheelchair with your left leg in a cast.

Most people would have had more sense, but we were both surprised

to find it rather soothing. And one day we surmised:

you needed an attention that I hardly ever pay

while I enjoyed the knowledge that you couldn’t get away.

She included “Wheelchair” in “Talking to the Dead” (2007), a book of poems about or inspired by her husband, who died in 2002.

“Feinstein knows only too well that ‘most of what we work at disappears,’” Antonia Byatt wrote of that collection in The Guardian, quoting a line from “Another Anniversary,” one of its poems, “but here are profound, deeply felt and complex poems that will last. Beautifully and delicately crafted, they dance between presence and absence, grief and joy, bleakness and rejuvenation.”

Ms. Feinstein enjoyed giving readings. Her website includes audio files of her reading both her own works and some by Tsvetaeva. She first published translations of Tsvetaeva’s poetry in 1971, and in 1987 she published a biography, “A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetaeva.” She took up another Russian poet in “Anna of All the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova” (2005).

Ms. Feinstein also wrote biographies of the English poet Ted Hughes and the American blues singer Bessie Smith. In 1993 she went somewhat against feminist criticism with “Lawrence and the Women: The Intimate Life of D.H. Lawrence,” examining his often tumultuous personal relationships.

“Most of Lawrence’s biographers have been men,” she wrote, “and the most brilliant of the feminist attacks (such as Kate Millett’s) have been more concerned with establishing Lawrence’s viciousness than understanding the man himself.”

Among the several radio plays she wrote were adaptations of Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Women in Love.”

In addition to her son Adam, Ms. Feinstein is survived by two other sons, Martin and Joel, and six grandchildren.

Ms. Feinstein was prolific for a half-century, from the typewriter era into the digital one. In a recent “10 Questions”-style interview with Alma Books, she was asked what three books she would save if her house were on fire.

“Well,” she answered, “I’d take my iPad.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries Desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic. @genznyt Facebook

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