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  Naomi Lewis (1911–2009), by Jenny Potter, 1975 Naomi Lewis (1911–2009), by Jenny Potter, 1975
Lewis [née Finkelstein], Naomi (1911–2009), poet and literary critic, was born Naomi Finkelstein at 12 St George's Road, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, on 3 September 1911, the second of four children of Samuel Meir Finkelstein, a herring merchant who had emigrated from Latvia, and his wife, Rachel, née Lewis, artist and musician. In spite of financial hardship she grew up in a cultured, secular Jewish home surrounded by music and intellectual discussion. Educated at Great Yarmouth High School for Girls (1921–7), she won a scholarship to read English at Westfield College, London University (1927–31). From early childhood a voracious reader, she was obsessed by words. She recalled in a Contemporary Authors interview that:
The real fact about me is that I am a writer, possessed by words and their sound since the age of four or so when I began to read. At six—I remember the moment—I made a discovery. I was reading a mild poem about fairies, I'm quite sure—but the shape and sound struck a strange chord within me. ‘I think I can do that’ were my unspoken words. (p. 322)
She added that she ‘promptly wrote the worst poem in the world (no doubt on fairies). But it did scan correctly. From that time on, poetry was my passion’ (ibid.).

Following graduation Naomi Finkelstein had a series of temporary jobs. These included temping for an East End firm, copywriting, and a spell teaching at a Swiss finishing school. Owing to antisemitism in the early 1930s, her family took her mother's name of Lewis and in 1935 moved to a flat, 3 Halsey House, 13 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London, where she lived until 2007, when she moved to 2 Halsey House. She taught at various state schools in the London area including Copthall County Grammar, in Mill Hill. She was a gifted teacher. Margaret Mason, a former pupil, recalled that ‘Her poetry lessons were a joy … I was enthralled hearing her read out Keats's ‘Ode to Autumn’. Now, 70 years on, I can still remember her distinctive, enunciated vowels’ (The Times, 17 July 2009). She possessed a phenomenal memory. ‘In the mid-1970s’, her pupil recalled, ‘having had no contact with her after leaving school, I asked if she would judge a poetry contest … Not only did she remember me but she also named half a dozen other girls of my year’ (ibid.). For forty years or so she taught poetry appreciation and creative writing at the City Literary Institute, developing a band of devotees. Her Messages: a Book of Poems (1985) contained poems written by her ‘City Lit’ students alongside favourites such as ‘Lycidas’.

Lewis's breakthrough as a writer was a consequence of her submitting regular entries to and winning, under various pseudonyms, the New Statesman literary competition. Unmasked, she was offered book reviewing and a double-page spread in the middle of each issue. V. S. Pritchett, a New Statesman colleague, asked her to review books aimed at younger children. This provided the practical stimulus for her subsequent reviewing career and reputation in what became the field of children's literature. She commented that ‘When I started writing prose [for the New Statesman] I found that writing a critical piece was very much like writing a poem’ (Contemporary Authors, 322). A pioneer in children's literature criticism, she contributed in the post-war period to periodicals, apart from the New Statesman, ranging from the New York Times, Harper's, Encounter, The Observer, The Listener, and the Times Literary Supplement, to the Times Educational Supplement, among others. She rarely kept deadlines and submitted copies with innumerable revisions largely in longhand. Blake Morrison, a fellow Observer reviewer, commented that ‘the end result, on the page, was always lucid and authoritative: no one knew more about children's books than Naomi’ (The Guardian, 14 July 2009).

In addition to broadcasting regularly on BBC radio, Lewis translated more than twenty children's works and became recognized as an authority on among others Hans Christian Andersen, an author she had read since childhood. Her translation of his stories, Fairy Tales, illustrated by Philip Gough, appeared in 1981 as a Puffin book, and became a familiar sight in the children's sections of public libraries as well as in homes. Many of her translations were also published in the United States and Canada, where she built up a considerable following. Some of her best reviews appeared in her collection A Visit to Mrs Wilcox (1957). She compiled at least twelve collections of works by others. These included fine introductions. An authority on Victorian literature, the collections included Christina Rossetti's and Emily Brontë's poetry (1959 and 1971 respectively). She wrote the authoritative preface and contributed eight knowledgeable essays to the St James's Press's Twentieth-Century Children's Writers series (1978–). A collection of her own poems, the Mardi Gras Cat (1993), was described by A. N. Wilson as ‘absolutely magical’ (Contemporary Authors, 321). In 1975 she was awarded the Eleanor Farjeon prize for distinguished services to British children's literature, and in 1981 she became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Witty but sceptical, asked if she believed in fairies, Lewis replied, ‘Of course, but I am never sure if they believe in me’ (The Guardian, 14 July 2009). For her there was a thin divide between reality and magic. Encountering Julian Symons in a deep sleep in front of the fire in the London Library reading room, she left a note on his lap, ‘All is discovered, fly at once’, and then claimed that he was not seen again at the library (ibid.). Nocturnal, prolific, an obsessive worker, riding a bicycle even in her old age in London, she devoted herself to vulnerable creatures. Her Red Lion Square flat became a temporary refuge for stray cats and injured pigeons. She gave her prime recreation in Who's Who as ‘trying in practical ways to alleviate the lot of horses, camels, bears, sheep, wolves, cows and other ill-used mortals of the animal kind’.

A dedicated humanist and long-time member of the South Place Ethical Society, Lewis regularly attended its Sunday evening chamber music concerts at the Conway Hall, Holborn. She lectured to the society on innumerable subjects ranging from ‘Primo Levi—his literary achievement’ to ‘Is Queen Victoria dead?’. Attractive even in old age, angular, with a high forehead and cheek bones, intense demeanour, distinct eyebrows, and hair invariably flopping down in a Pre-Raphaelite painting mode, just above her shoulders, she maintained something of the appearance of a Romantic poet. Her epitaph was in her poem in an Anthology of Nature Verse, which she edited in 1983:
Don't grieve. Don't grieve. I shall be there …
Look for my footprint on the air.
She died on 5 July 2009 at the Queen's Court nursing home, Queen's Road, Wimbledon. She never married.

William Baker

Sources  

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, 124 (2004), 318–24 · The Times (10 July 2009); (17 July 2009) · The Guardian (14 July 2009); (18 July 2009) · Daily Telegraph (3 Aug 2009) · The Independent (18 Sept 2009) · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert.

Archives  

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, BBC sound archive


Likenesses  

J. Potter, photograph, 1975, priv. coll. [see illus.] · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

under £4000: probate, 9 Sept 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales