Elaine Feinstein (née Cooklin) was born into a family of Jewish immigrants in Bootle, Lancashire, on 24 October 1930. Her parents were from Liverpool and all her grandparents were from Odessa, Ukraine, having moved to the North of England in the 1890s. She was brought up in the industrial town of Leicester in the English Midlands. Her father owned a factory, and his success with it fluctuated dramatically. Although her family was never destitute, Feinstein experienced some genteel poverty in her childhood. An only child, she was raised to respect religion, but it was only after World War II that she came to realise what being Jewish meant for her.
Feinstein started writing poetry at age eight. Her father, a furniture-maker by day and storyteller by night, was, according to Feinstein, one of her major literary inspirations. After the Second World War, the fortunes of her father declined and Feinstein was overjoyed when she became the first Wyggeston Grammar School (Leicester) student to read English at Newnham College, Cambridge. This was in 1949, only a year after the first women were admitted to full membership of the University. She was the recipient of a grant provided by the Butler Education Act of 1944, receiving both her bachelor and master's degrees from Cambridge University. During Feinstein's early Cambridge days she lived in a commune in Portugal Place.
Soon after graduating in 1952, she met Arnold Feinstein, a molecular biologist and son of a Stepney tailor. In 1956 she settled in Cambridge with Arnold and their three sons, Joel, Martin (b. 1959) and Adam. The family lived in the centre of the city for more than a quarter of century.
Feinstein trained at the bar but decided not to practice. She worked as an editorial staff member at Cambridge University Press before becoming a lecturer. She was a Lecturer in English at Bishop's Stortford Training College, Hertfordshire, 1963-66; and Assistant Lecturer in Literature, University of Essex, Colchester, 1967-70. In the late 1960s Feinstein joined a poetry group in an effort to clarify her approach and better understand her own poetic voice. Thereafter Feinstein's work began to explore her ancestry and heritage as well as the horrors inflicted on modern Jews. She worked as a freelance writer from 1971 onwards. She has worked as a sub-editor and a freelance journalist writing for The Times, The Guardian, and other papers. Critics agree that the death of Feinstein's parents in 1973 marks the beginning of her movement into new thematic territory, in particular, a personal journey of exploration into Jewish history. Since 1980, when she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, she has lived as a full-time writer.
Feinstein is a distinguished, award-winning writer, having established her literary reputation as a poet with over fifteen published collections; the earliest, In a Green Eye, was published in 1966. Her rich corpus of work spans a range of other literary genres too, including translation, the novel, biography, literary criticism, plays for television and radio, journalism and memoirs. Feinstein has moved within an eclectic range of literary circles, ranging from the Beats and the Black Mountain poets of America, to the literary traditions of Eastern Europe. Feinstein also has strong links to the North-West of England, where she was born. Manchester is home to her publishers, Carcanet Press.
Feinstein has written over a dozen novels. Much of her material is drawn from personal experience, though set within the wider cultural contexts of her Jewish inheritance, feminism and European history. In the late 1960s Feinstein developed more intimately personal preoccupations with recently deceased Russian and Soviet poets Anna Akhmatova, Bella Akhmadulina, Joseph Brodsky and Marina Tsvetaeva. In particular, her deep regard for the poet Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) inspired Feinstein to explore both biography and translation. Feinstein has produced award-winning translations of work by Tsvetaeva and other Russian women poets. Her versions of the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, first published in 1971, were a New York Times Book of the Year and were extended in Bride of Ice (Carcanet, 2010).
Through her biographies she has explored the lives and works of Tsvetaeva herself, in A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetayeva (London: Hutchinson, 1987); writer Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837) in Pushkin: A Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998); Anna Andreyevna Gorenko (1889-1966), better known by the pen name Anna Akhmatova, in Anna of all the Russias: The Life of Anna Akhmatova (Weidenfield, 2005 and Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), which has been translated into twelve languages including Russian; English novelist, D.H. Lawrence (1835-1930) in Lawrence's Women: The Intimate Life of D.H. Lawrence (Harper Collins, 1993); American blues singer, Bessie Smith (1894-1937) in Bessie Smith (Lives of Modern Women Series, Penguin, 1985); and former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Ted Hughes. Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001) was shortlisted for the biennial Marsh Biography Prize.
Feinstein's first novel, The Circle (1970), was long listed for the 'lost' Man Booker prize in 2010. Her most recent, The Russian Jerusalem (Carcanet, 2008), won a major Arts Council Award.
Feinstein has travelled extensively, not only to read her work at festivals across the world, but to be writer in residence for the British Council, first in Singapore, and then in Tromsӧ, Norway. She was a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow at Bellagio in 1998.
Although she is a distinguished short-story writer, playwright, biographer and translator, poetry is at the heart of Feinstein's writing. In Britain her poetic connections are wide, but her horizons also extend far beyond the UK: influenced in her early work by modernist poets like Ezra Pound, in the 1950s she was excited by American experimental and avant-garde literary movements. As founder and editor of Prospect magazine (1959), she provided a key forum for the early publication of writers such as the Americans Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Michael McClure; she elicited from Charles Olson his famous statement about Projectivism, laying the transatlantic foundations for the Cambridge School of poets.
Feinstein's poems have been widely anthologised. Her Collected Poems and Translations (2002) was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation. In 1990, she received a Cholmondeley Award for Poetry, and was given an Honorary D.Litt from the University of Leicester. Feinstein has served on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature and as a judge for the Gregory Awards, the Independent Foreign Fiction Award, the Whitbread Poetry Prize, the Costa Poetry Prize and in 1995 was chair of the judges for the T.S. Eliot Prize. In 2005 she was awarded a Civil List pension in recognition of her services to Literature.