Elaine Feinstein

Quickly onto another woman who must be given a chapter of her own, Elaine Feinstein.

Feinstein, who contributed ‘A Late Spring’ to PEN New Fiction 2, was born in 1930, a year after Connie Bensley. Which means she was 57 when the anthology came out and was already a much-published writer. In fact, along with Kathrine Talbot (briefly considered in chapter ten) she was one of the most established writers as of 1987.

By then, Feinstein had published ten collections of poems, seven novels and a biography of a Russian poet, Maria Tsvetayeva. So that puts me, in my 58
th year, to shame. But, of course, I don’t mean that – it’s not a publishing contest. And if it is, Ian Rankin, by selling millions of books more than any other PEN pal, has won hands down.

Since ‘87, Feinstein has gone on to write another eight novels, nine more collections of poetry and four more biographies: of DH Lawrence, Pushkin, Ted Hughes, and another Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. Big on poetry, then. Particularly big on Russian poetry. And on poetry by exceptionally talented men.


The book on Ted Hughes, which came out in 2001, when Elaine Feinstein was 71, was her most successful title. She drew on her personal knowledge of Hughes (his sister was Feinstein’s literary agent) as well as her experience as a poet to come up with her take on his life and work.

Elaine Feinstein is 85 now. Is she still writing? Her latest biography came out in 2006, her latest novel in 2009 and her last poetry collection in 2015. So, yes, she is still writing. She published a memoir in 2013,
It Goes with the Territory, perhaps the only PEN2 contributor to have written a full-length autobiography as such, and I’ve got a copy to hand that I’ll be referring to.

Her PEN story is set in Cambridge, juxtaposing the points of view of two people. First, Jenny, a visiting professor who has been away from Cambridge for ten years. Second, Maurice, a don whose subject is Medieval History and who is very set in his ways.

From the start, she intimidates him with her own independent views and they argue with each other. However, she is lonely (having temporarily left her husband, who is based in the United States) and when Maurice suddenly discovers how sad she is, he becomes kinder to her and they begin to communicate like adults.

The story is called ‘A Late Spring’, because, towards the end, Maurice feels a romantic attraction towards Jenny. He goes so far as to wonder whether he’s been right to choose a monastic lifestyle. However, in a sense Jenny has been leading him on. It has suited her to feel that she can still attract male attention. She remains committed to her relationship with her absent husband. The final sentence of the story reads: ‘The strangest thing of all was that, apart from the time she kissed him in the garden, Maurice had never even touched her.’

The temptation is to think that the story is effectively a character study of an over-fastidious and reserved man. But it feels to this reader as if there may be autobiographical drives lurking.


A quick dip into It Goes With the Territory, is enough to establish that Feinstein’s autobiography is suffused with two words: ‘Arnold’ and ‘Cambridge’.

Actually, I’ve gone through the whole 2013 memoir, making notes as I’ve gone along. Let’s see if they tell a story that adds to our knowledge about ‘what happens to writers’.

Elaine Cooklin, as she was born, is descended from grandparents who all left the Ukraine. She was raised in Leicester by her Jewish parents and read English at Newnham College, Cambridge (another state school to Oxbridge student, though a full generation before Jeff/Charles/me), getting her degree in 1952. After going down to London for a few years to study for the Bar, she returned to Cambridge with boyfriend Arnold in tow. Brilliant Arnold Feinstein was profoundly shy and conscious of having been brought up in disabling under-privilege in the East End of London. He had taken a job as an industrial chemist and had begun a PhD at Acton Technical College, but this was not proving to be the route into biochemical research that he’d envisaged. Elaine was able to help him with application forms and in due course he was given an opportunity to do a PhD at Cambridge University.

Living together in the delightful varsity town, the first of their three sons was born in 1957, when Elaine was 27. Due to Elaine’s interest in English and her sociability, the couple came into contact with many poets and writers. When Harold Pinter came to speak in Cambridge he was given a rough ride by the audience, but to Elaine’s delight Arnold stood up and spoke out in his defense.

Elaine was working for Cambridge University Press, basically an admin job to pay the rent (like Jeff New at Oxford University Press). But she was also developing her vision and skills as a poet. If Arnold began to feel at the periphery of Elaine’s emotional life because of her commitment to poetry, she could not have complained. One day Elaine found Arnold in bed with the
au pair. She did complain about this, though she also forgave him.

It seems that Arnold was a man of many paradoxes. Untidy in appearance he couldn’t stand sloppiness of thought. He challenged Angela Carter about feminism and dismissed her ideas as merely fashionable. Though in Elaine’s view, Angela Carter was an original thinker who wrote outstandingly well, but who was not verbally articulate. This made her vulnerable when debating with a quick- thinking logician like Arnold.


In due course, Arnold rose to become Head of the Department of Immunology at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. In 1973, by which time Elaine was 43, they sold their previous house and bought 27 Park Parade, by Jesus College, where they were to live for more than ten years.

This was a tough time for Arnold who became a 17-stone depressive, overly worried about his career. When he retired from his immunology headship at Cambridge, the couple moved to London. That would have been in 1985, I calculate. And the deadline for submissions to
PEN New Fiction 2 was that December.

Elaine covers the rest of her life – her post-
PEN New Fiction 2 years, if I can put it that way - in just 20 pages, which is odd, since she was very productive in this time.

Ted Hughes gets under two pages. From his funeral in 1998; to a writer acquaintance commissioning Elaine a few weeks later to write a biography of Hughes; to the
Sunday Times buying serial rights to three parts of the finished book in 2001.

A key paragraph tells us that Hughes’s widow didn’t think Ted wanted any biography written. But Elaine felt there was a story to tell –
his own story of becoming the immensely popular poet he did become, rather than the story of his marriage to Sylvia Plath which had been told many times. The fact that Hughes had sold many boxes of his personal papers to Emory University in Atlanta, meant Elaine felt justified in following them there and writing the book.

Before ending her own life story, Elaine tries to encapsulate her relationship with Arnold in this paragraph:

‘Friends often suggested I ought to leave him, since I wasn’t after all dependent on him financially. But the trouble was I didn’t
want to. Arnold had been the love of my life for more than forty years, and I could not help believing that the companionship we had once shared would return. Until then I had work to do: books and poems to write.’


Arnold became depressed again and didn’t dress in the mornings. He surrounded his chair with books and newspapers and often fell asleep in it. He made it known to Elaine that he had the chemical means to take his own life.

But he lived on. They lived on together, with Elaine losing herself (or keeping in touch with herself) via her writing.

Eventually, they had to move from their home in Belsize Park because Arnold couldn’t get up the steps outside the house. He was suffering from a blood disease and a doctor pronounced him dangerously anaemic. Elaine recalls Arnold saying to her: “Hold my hand. I feel I won’t die while you are here. “

He did die while she was there: ‘As I came into the room, he gave a long sigh, as if he had been holding his breath until I appeared. The stertorous intake of breath that usually followed never came.’

He died in 2002, aged 77. I don’t think much happened to Arnold Feinstein from the day he retired in 1985. As for his wife, she wrote books.

OK, I think I’ve worked my way up to being able to approach Elaine Feinstein by email
. The reply comes a few days later:

Dear Duncan,

I think I was at the party, but the trouble is I have no memory of who was in the book. I am staying with my son and won't be back with my books for a few weeks.
 May I send you my thoughts then ?

I must confess  I am not sure I have a copy of the anthology even when I do go home .  Amazon does not offer a copy, and I don't think I have ever republished A LATE SPRING----Still, I will do what I can. 

All good wishes, Elaine 


I offer to send Elaine a copy of the anthology if she can’t find the book when she returns to her library, and then I leave her to enjoy time with her family.

Before long I find myself returning to It Goes with the Territory, focusing once more on those twenty pages that cover the last thirty years of Elaine’s life to date. If I miss out the references to Arnold, I’m left with a concise writing history…

After 1987 (PEN year) Elaine seems to have concentrated on novels for almost a decade. At least that’s what
It Goes With the Territory suggests though she was also publishing poetry in the period. Mother’s Girl (1988) involves two sisters, but the one who is the main protagonist is brought up in Leicester as Elaine was. ‘Hers had been a life of academic success, sexual obsession and a doomed marriage.’ Autobiographical? Elaine doesn’t say, choosing to foreground that it’s a book about daughters who adore their fathers and undervalue their mothers.

Loving Brecht (1992), is set in Berlin, at least to begin with. Its protagonist, Frieda, has her first experience of sexual pleasure with Bertolt Brecht. She could see that Brecht had many lovers and so tore herself away from him, showing resilience and stamina as her life unfolded. Elaine comments that these were qualities she found she needed for herself.

The next novel was
Dreamers (1994), but Elaine says almost nothing about it, just that it was a many-voiced book with a dark secret at its heart, set in mid nineteenth century Vienna.

She says more about
Lady Chatterley’s Confession (1995). An exploration of what might have happened if Connie and Mellors had taken off to Italy as Lawrence and Frieda did. As Elaine explains, she had her own insights into the long battling marriage between the Lawrences, which she’d already explored in a biography of D.H. Lawrence. In other words, Elaine explored the passionate author’s need to break away from female domination.


On the face of it, what these novels show is a dual interest in the sexuality of the female and in the highly-charged creative male. A little ironic, given her own personal circumstances, married to a washed-up scientist. But perhaps there wasn’t as much distance between Arnold Feinstein and DH Lawrence as might first appear. Or perhaps frustration at the size of the gap between Arnold Feinstein and Bertolt Brecht stimulated Elaine’s imagination.

Next, Elaine was invited to write the biography of the great Russian poet, Pushkin, which must have suited her down to the ground. ‘I loved the ease of his invention, the fizz of his wit and his impish courage.’ Arnold came to admire the poetry of Pushkin too, and through this Elaine began to ‘regain her old affection’ for him.

Pushkin came out in 2000 when 70-year-old Elaine was writing her biography of Ted Hughes. If that makes it sound as if Elaine was now exclusively interested in hyper-talented male egos, it has to be pointed out that the Hughes biography interrupted the research and writing of a biography of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, a book which came out in 2005.

Actually, that’s where Elaine’s memoir ends. And specifically with the following scene. Arnold had died in 2002, and in 2003 when Elaine was giving a reading she was approached by the solicitor she had once been engaged to as a young woman, accompanied by his wife. Her ex-lover commented:

“Didn’t they all have
unhappy lives, these Russian women poets you admire so much?”

Elaine was surprised that their achievement as writers wasn’t uppermost in his mind, as it was in hers. But she saw that he was thinking of the women poets
personal lives rather than their creative achievements. And her reply to him: “It goes with the territory,” would seem to imply that she accepted that this was the sort of person she was.

In other words, it’s an experience of deep personal sadness that can be transformed into writing. It’s the unfortunate things, the defeats, that happen to people of a certain disposition, which turns them into writers. Or at least it’s what happened to Elaine Feinstein that made her a writer.


It’s almost a month since Elaine wrote to me. Time that I followed things up:

Dear Elaine,

I wonder if you've been able to locate that 1987 anthology with your Cambridge story in it. If you haven't, the offer is still there for me to send you a copy of the book.

Coincidentally, I was at a friend's house last weekend. He has a great many poetry volumes. Late in the evening, he announced that he wanted to read the assembled guests a single poem. It was your translation of Marina Tsvetaeva's 'An Attempt at Jealousy', which I'd become familiar with through its inclusion in
 It Goes With the Territory. He associates me with prose, not poetry, and registered mild surprise at my correct identification of the work. 

Hope you're in good health.

Best wishes, Duncan

Come to think of it, there are lines in that poem that would have come as a good riposte to the old boyfriend that Elaine was confronted with in 2003. In particular:

How is your life with an ordinary woman?

Elaine accepts my offer of a copy of the anthology. However, a week later when I enquire whether it has arrived, she informs me it came when she was in hospital with a broken leg and that she has not been able to collect it since returning home as she recently sold her car.

Now, a broken leg is a serious business for anyone, never mind an octogenarian, so I ask Elaine how she’s doing. It seems she’s recovering well. And her daughter-in-law has collected the book from the post office. In due course, I dare say, Elaine will get back to me.

I leave it there though. Besides, now I’ve had a closer look at the autobiography I only have a single question, and it’s one I cannot ask her:


‘Given your writing mission, instead of Arnold, wouldn’t you rather have been married to a DH Lawrence, a Ted Hughes, a Bertolt Brecht or a Pushkin?’


One day three books drop through my letterbox, all authored by Elaine Feinstein.

Ted Hughes is a sumptuous production by Weidenfield and Nicolson. The dustcover, featuring a photo of Ted Hughes drinking from a glass of champagne, is semi-transparent, allowing me to see that there is a layer of handwriting behind the poet. A letter from Ted Hughes to Sylvia Plath? I take off the jacket and read the handwritten words printed on the hard cover of the book. The first sentence goes: ‘In October 1951, Ted Hughes went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, with an exhibition in English.’ Which is also the sentence that begins chapter two of the book. What a subtle tribute to the biographer that her words are given such pride of place.

It’s obvious that Feinstein would have been given a large advance for
Ted Hughes. In It Goes With the Territory, she doesn’t say much about money. Though she does say that in the early 70s, when Olwyn Hughes was her agent, she was offered 15,000 dollars to write the biography of Marina Tsvetaeva, a sum that was almost as much as she and Arnold had just paid for a house in Brighton. In other words, Elaine Feinstein, like Frances Fyfield, has at times earned a lot from her writing. Indeed, of the PEN2 authors, they are the second and third highest earners (from their writing, though there are a couple of contributors I’ve yet to consider who have earned a great deal from predominantly non-writing work).

But it’s the other two books that I’m going to read, at least in part. First,
Lawrence’s Women. The opening paragraph says something significant. ‘In recent years, feminist critics have been angered by Lawrence because he increasingly came to see liberation for women entirely in terms of a saving sexual relationship, and his writings show a mounting rage against women’s desires to use their minds and express their individuality.’


It becomes clear, that although Feinstein admires elements of David Lawrence’s life and writing, essentially she’s adding to the feminist critique. The book approaches Lawrence via his relations with several women, from his mother onwards.

Lawrence spent much of his adult life married to Frieda von Richthofen, who he came to be dependent on. Towards the end of the book, Feinstein writes: ‘
Lady Chatterley’s Lover is in several ways Lawrence’s sexual autobiography, for all that it is told through the sensibility of Constance Chatterley (unmistakably based on Frieda), and not only because Mellors, the gamekeeper on the Chatterley estate, resembles Lawrence in being working class and well-educated and assured. Sir Clifford Chatterley, too, whose war wound makes it impossible for him to have sexual relations with his wife, is in a situation which reflects Lawrence’s own at the time of writing; by 1928 he was too ill to make love to Frieda, and he guessed she was betraying him with Angelo Ravagli.’

It’s this whole scenario that Feinstein further explores in her novel
Lady Chatterley’s Confession, which is written in the first person and from the woman’s perspective. Constance gives birth to Mellors’ child, a girl called Emily, and they live together in humble circumstances in his home village in the Midlands of England. The sex is primitive and one-sided, but Connie puts up with it. Here is a sample.

“You’re hurting me,” I said, with surprise.
“Am I? Open your legs wider,” he said thickly.
And as I did so, he thrust into me without the least affection, without preparing my body for his own in any way. The suddenness bruised me, but I made no resistance: indeed the violence of his thrust excited me. And I fancied he seemed to take some pleasure in my gasp of pain.

The couple can’t make ends meet financially, and Connie arranges for them to move to Italy where Mellors works in a stables. Mellors seems to lose all interest in giving his partner sexual pleasure and they drift apart emotionally. To add to their troubles, Mellors develops tuberculosis and soon Connie is looking after her husband, now badly ill as well as seriously grumpy. In due course, Mellors dies. Sir Clifford, who has been making overtures to adopt Emily, also dies. Leaving the women to carry on, with all future hopes resting with Emily, who has inherited the intelligence and passionate pride of both her parents.


Perhaps I’m not being fair to these books by not reading them in their entirety. All I’ve done today is admire Ted Hughes as an object, read extracts from Lawrence’s Women using the index as a guide, and speed-read Lady Chatterley’s Confession.

But then, primarily, I’m trying to get an overview on Elaine Feinstein’s writing life, and how her real life affected that. Do I have such a perspective yet? Not quite.


I order Talking to the Dead, and a few days later a slim book of poetry - dedicated to Albert Feinstein and published in 2007 - is pushed through the letterbox.

From this satisfyingly simple and emotionally honest book - in which Cambridge is not mentioned but Mill Road, Free School Lane and Jesus Green are - I learn:

That Arnold and Elaine loved easily when they were young.

That Arnold became the skin of all Elaine was.

That they shared each other’s worst faults: disorder, absentmindedness and neglect.

That according to Arnold, meetings with thinkers were a serious matter and that’s why he hated to leave their presence.

That Arnold once decribed his wife as a natural spinster, meaning a loner, happiest on her own.

That Arnold once said: “We think. We learn to understand a bit. And then we’re dead.”


That Arnold lives on in drawers where he once kept sleeping pills and indigestion tablets, his hearing aids, his spectacles and his teeth.

That she still remembers his warm back as they slept like spoons together.

That in her dreams Elaine wanders into the garden asking ‘Where are you, my darling? You will catch cold.”

That Arnold was always home for Elaine, who longs for home.

That Arnold has been whirled into that darkness where nothing is found.

That Elaine is left with a granddaughter, tender as a blossom, whom she hopes ferocious London will be tender with…

Ultimately, what I get from Talking to the Dead is an answer to the question I wanted to ask Elaine about alternative mates. I don’t think she would have been better off with DH Lawrence instead of Arnold Feinstein. Both men had their limitations, as no doubt all of us do.

Moreover, she couldn’t have got any more from living with a brilliant writer than she got from Arnold, except brilliant writing. And for that there are many books to refer to, including her own.


I write once more to Elaine Feinstein. No reply, then eventually she does get back to me.

Dear Duncan,

You must wonder why I have not responded to your friendly email.  In part, this is because of a trip to Barcelona, but more unhappily, it is because the THE TYPE IN YOUR ATTACHMENT IS TOO SMALL!

Could you possibly send the chapter in 18 point?  I will then be able to respond as you deserve

My warmest good wishes, Elaine


I do as my PEN Pal asks, but I’m not holding my breath. Holding one’s breath when corresponding with people in their mid-eighties is not a good idea, notwithstanding Connie Bensley’s reliability in replying.

Instead, I Google Elaine’s name and come across a video of an appearance she made at the London Buddhist Centre this year. In the film, she’s being interviewed by a man with a long Buddhist name. Elaine sits there looking slightly nervous, yet at the same time radiating calm.

She composed her first poetry when she was eight-years-old, while bouncing a tennis ball on the road where she lived. At nineteen she sent off a novel to a publisher, and when it was sent back to her she burnt the manuscript in order to punish herself for being so arrogant as to think that the world might be interested in what she had to say. In fact, Elaine was by then addicted to writing and has gone on writing poetry and prose ever since.

Modest Elaine tells the audience that she was never a worldly person. Her literary career, if that’s what it was, came entirely by accident. She wasn’t published at all until her mid-thirties, when
Paris Review printed one of her poems. Then Ted Hughes picked out her poetry from the slush pile at Faber. Hughes then did her the further favour of sending round his sister to look after her literary interests. What a sweet story. And it would partly explain why Elaine Feinstein felt motivated to write the biography of Ted Hughes when he died, thirty years later.

The interviewer (Maitreyabandhu) asks Elaine why her poetry has mattered to her. She answers that by writing things down, this seems to have brought her consolation. The burden of sadness no longer seems to be borne only by herself.

She goes on to say that there has been a cost to her writing. That it undermined her marriage in several ways. Firstly, the house was always a mess. Arnold was no tidier than she was, so it was difficult to attribute blame on that score. (Laughter from the audience.) But there was a time when Elaine was the only woman in a household containing five men: Arnold, their three sons and Elaine’s father. No housework got done unless Elaine did it. Yet still she would make time to climb upstairs to her room, away from the chaos downstairs, in order to write a chapter of a novel or a poem.


More significantly, her writing undermined her marriage because it incited jealousy in Arnold. She would get very excited by being published, by being invited to foreign places to give readings, in fact by everything about the writing life. Although Arnold was successful in his own work, it did not give him this kind of satisfaction. The only thing that excited him in the same way was when a woman fell in love with him. And so Elaine’s success in her writing life led Arnold to have affairs and to cause Elaine great distress. Which in turn fed into her writing.

At the end of the interview, Elaine was scheduled to read from her two most recent poetry collections,
Cities and Portraits. But the video doesn’t include the reading itself.

So I feel it’s down to me to choose an appropriate poem, and to read it aloud. One that seems to sum up where I’ve got to with this latest PEN Pal. Perhaps a poem that nods at the non-affair between Maurice and Jenny in ‘A Late Spring’. A poem that embraces the tempestuous relationship between DH and Frieda Lawrence. Above all, a poem that alludes to a lifetime spent with Arnold Feinstein.

I choose something from the 2015 collection
Portraits. So with that open at page 32, I read:

“The Marriage of Thomas and Jane Carlyle.”

(Which I have to say is not to be confused with the union of John Thomas and Lady Jane.)

“He fell in love at once. Not her.
who was more taken with his stylish friend.
A pretty girl, ready to flirt with suitors,
she had to ignore his clumsiness, dyspepsia,
the local accent he refused to lose,

and (for all the wit) uncertain future.


“Never pretending to be in love with him,
she grew dependent on his conversation,
agreed to an engagement, blew hot and cold
(they both did) and at length agreed to marriage.
Such a great friendship they might have enjoyed
if they had not begun to share a household.

“A frugal life, even after
The French Revolution
brought the great world to Cheyne Row.
Did they ever try sleeping together?
There were no children. Both were often ill
- and Jane recovered best away from home
Strangely, apart, their letters would be tender.

“Jane wrote to him of ‘comforting with kisses’ –
confessing she knew they’d row once back together.
With guests, her voice was always strong as his,
she liked to make fun of his grumpiness
in front of a shocked attentive audience.
And young men were infatuated by her presence.

“Most of what Thomas wanted he achieved:
admirers, world recognition, a sufficiency.
Her gifts began to fade compared to his:
the dancing girl with her long eyelashes
he barely noticed now. Her letters fizzed
with the shrewd details of a novelist

“but something held her back from such a risk –
while he paid homage to his Lady Ashburton
for ‘cheerfulness’ he could not find at home.
Morphine and sleeplessness then took their toll.
In the Tait photograph of the Carlyles
her skin looks shriveled, eyes no longer bold.

“Carlyle retreated to a soundproof room
Jane felt unwanted, frequently sustained
only by women friends she entertained –
with vignettes of grim days – to her last breath.
She would not have been much consoled to witness
the depth of his remorse after her death.”


I wonder what Arnold would have made of that composition. I know he’d been dead for several years by the time the poem was written, but what was the collection, Talking to the Dead, if not a negation of death’s separation?

Elaine: “So what do you think, darling?”

Arnold: “You are glowing, do you know that, my dear? The creation of a fine poem is like sex for you, it always was. But sex with yourself. And where does that leave me? A seventeen-stone depressive that no one will be falling in love with ever again.”

Elaine: “Oh, Arnold.”

Arnold: “Like Lady Jane Carlyle, my gifts have faded before my partner’s. Gone is your dancing boy with his long lashes. Like Lady Jane I will die before the love of my life. Will it bring me consolation to see the depths of your remorse after my death?”

Elaine doesn’t answer. Not with words. She just sits there looking superficially nervous, while radiating an inner calm, tears flowing down her face from wide-open eyes.

Can I get away with three ostensibly contradictory statements in the one sentence? Elaine Feinstein would know. I hope to be able to ask her one day.


Great. Two chapters in a row concerning women. Added to the chapter on Wendy that makes three chapters on women compared with eight on individual men. Not exactly an even balance, but better than it might have been.


I do need to say something even if just very briefly about the difference in ease of communicating with the male writers compared to the women. On a number of occasions with a man, I’ve just had to send the contact email and a full-blooded communication has ensued. This has not happened with a single woman writer. As discussed earlier, this is a self-confidence thing. No doubt it's also a self-protection thing. We men can be terribly overbearing and need to be treated with maximum circumspection.

But in case you, dear reader, are in any doubt, the figure below is that of a woman. Call her Wendy, Connie or Elaine. Call her Alex, Carol or Suzi. Call her Lady Jane Carlyle. Call her! - you may or may not get a response. If you do, it will be measured. Just be assured that she is listening and she hears you.

pen pals - Version 2

Note: Permission pending to reproduce 'The Marriage of Thomas and Jane Carlyle'.

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