‘A Ghost in the Rylands Library’: The Papers of Elaine Feinstein

Elaine Feinstein’s archive is one of our most important modern literary collections, and we are delighted to announce that a catalogue of its content is now live in our ELGAR database. This cataloguing project was made possible by a grant from the Strachey Trust, and Project Archivist Jane Speller has written this blog post to celebrate the extraordinary breadth of Elaine Feinstein’s literary output as seen through her collected papers.

‘She is an extremely fine poet. She has a sinewy, tenacious way of exploring her subject that seems to me unique. Her simple, clean language follows the track of the nerves. There is nothing hit or miss, nothing for effect, nothing false. Reading her poems one feels cleansed and sharpened.’  (Ted Hughes).

In addition to being a celebrated poet, Elaine Feinstein is a prolific novelist, biographer and playwright. She is the author of fifteen novels and even more poetry collections.

Gwen and Jamies portrait
This portrait photograph of Elaine Feinstein was taken by Gwen Riley Jones and Jamie Robinson – two of the Library’s photographers – in 2013. Some of the box files containing Feinstein’s working papers can be seen in the background.

An expert on Russian literature, it was only later in life that Feinstein began to learn Russian herself. Despite her Russian heritage, Feinstein grew up speaking English at home and only learnt Russian in her twenties. She has since received three Arts Council Awards for her translations of the Soviet Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), whom she describes as ‘the most important single influence on my poetry’. Feinstein first read the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva in Russian in the 1960s and the encounter transformed her. ‘What drew me to her initially,’ she writes, ‘was the intensity of her emotions, and the honesty with which she exposed them.’  Feinstein’s translations of Tsvetaeva’s work, first published to great acclaim in 1971, introduced Tsvetaeva to English readers, and in 1987 Feinstein’s biography, A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetayeva, was published.  Feinstein’s enduring relationship with the work of Tsvetaeva culminated in 2009 with the publication of Bride of Ice: New Selected Poems (Carcanet), an enlarged edition to which Feinstein added five major pieces, including ‘Girlfriend’, a sequence of lyrics, written by Tsvetayeva for her lover, the poet and journalist, Sofia Parnok (1885-1931).

Feinstein has also translated a host of other Russian writers, including Margarita Aliger (1915-92), Yunna Moritz (b.1937) and Bella Akhmadulina (1937-2010). In addition, she is the biographer of literary giants Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). Feinstein’s other biographical studies include two further writers with turbulent lives: the English novelist D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and the UK’s Poet Laureate (1984-98) Ted Hughes. The papers relating to all of these biographies are included in her archive.

The Feinstein archive is now housed in over 150 archive boxes, and whilst the material is physically ordered and contained, the contents are bursting with life: narratives and partial narratives, drafts and redrafts, meticulous translations from Russian into English – literal and poetic; detailed notes from Feinstein’s research visits to Russia; transcriptions of interviews; and correspondence with major literary figures from around the world.

A tiny portion of Elaine Feinstein’s archive during the cataloguing project. Her papers have now been repackaged into archival folders and boxes, but all her original file labels have been carefully transcribed in the catalogue.

Feinstein’s novels often feature Jewish characters. The tense poignant action of The Border (1984) concerns a couple forced to flee from Austria following the Anschluss. Loving Brecht (1992) follows the life and times of Frieda Bloom, a Jewish cabaret singer whose chaotic emotional life takes her from Weimar Berlin to Stalin’s Moscow, from New York to eventual refuge in London. Children of the Rose (1975) deals with the lives of the European Jews and the Second World War, exploring the current and past lives of a group of people scarred as a result of the war. Jewish identity in England is explicated in The Survivors (1982), a novel set in Feinstein’s native Lancashire where issues of assimilation, acculturation and tradition are portrayed. Feinstein’s most recent book, The Russian Jerusalem (2008) is a fascinating mix of fiction, autobiography and poetry, in which the author, with the ghost of Marina Tsvetaeva as her guide, reconstructs the fates of the great Russian writers during Stalin’s Terror. The Terror and its aftermath is also a dominant subject in her biography of Akhmatova, Anna of All the Russias: The Life of a Poet under Stalin (2005). Feinstein often illuminates important episodes in Akhmatova’s tempestuous life by interpolating her own translations of passages from Akhmatova‘s poems.

Feinstein came from a Jewish background, and one of the themes of her fiction is religion and spirituality, although not of the orthodox type. Feinstein’s novels, The Ecstasy of Dr. Miriam Garner (1976), and The Shadow Master (1979), and her radio play The Temptation of Dr. William Fosters (1991) display a unique blend of religious morality and social awareness combined with an investigation of personal desires. Papers relating to these plays as well as Feinstein’s other work for radio, television and theatre can be found in the archive.

Feinstein continues to write, and one of her most recent poems has an archival theme. She attended this year’s annual John Rylands Research Institute conference in June 2017. Called Archival Afterlives, the event focused on archives relating to post-war poetry. Reflecting on her own ‘archival afterlife’, Feinstein was prompted to write a poem on the subject. ‘A Ghost in the Rylands Library’ was published by the Spectator in September, and Elaine has given us permission to reproduce the text below. We have also been given permission to share a wonderful film of Elaine reading the poem: follow this link to view the clip, which was made by Colin Still of Optic Nerve.

Ghost in the Rylands Library

A selection of items from Elaine Feinstein’s Papers can currently be seen on display in the two Literature-themed exhibition cases in our Rylands Gallery until March 2018.

1 comment on “‘A Ghost in the Rylands Library’: The Papers of Elaine Feinstein

  1. Pingback: ‘A Ghost in the Rylands Library’: A Tribute to and from Elaine Feinstein (1930-2019) – The John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

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