Shall we tell the children?

Paul Seabright

  • Melanie Klein: Her World and her Work by Phyllis Grosskurth
    Hodder, 516 pp, £19.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 340 25751 2
  • Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey 1924-1925 edited by Perry Meisel and Walter Kendrick
    Chatto, 360 pp, £14.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 7011 3051 2

When Alix Strachey, translator of Freud, went to Berlin in 1924 to seek psychoanalysis with Freud’s colleague, Karl Abraham, her most momentous acquisition, in an accumulation consisting inter alia of books, antique knick-knacks and (to a compulsive extent, on the evidence of her letters) of Apfeltorte under lashings of cream, was a then little-known child-analyst of Polish-Slovakian extraction named Melanie Klein. It was largely thanks to the efforts of Alix and her husband James in bringing Klein to the attention of the British Psycho-Analytical Society that she moved to London in 1926 after the death of Abraham. He had been Klein’s mentor and analyst, and without him she had little defence against the hostility that was surfacing in the Berlin Society and that she was to provoke in one form or another throughout her career. Klein was, by general consent, not an easy person, but Alix Strachey (no pushover herself) quickly came to a warm appreciation of her qualities of mind even while considering her a testimonial to the effects of psychoanalysis on the grounds that ‘she’d be almost intolerable if she had’nt [sic] been well basted by it.’ In personal matters Alix was intolerant: Klein, she said, ‘dances like an elephant’ – a severe handicap when the major preoccupation in Twenties Berlin was party-going. Alix clearly found vulgar Klein’s penchant for dressing up for these parties ‘as a kind of Cleopatra – terrifically décolletée – and covered in bangles and rouge’ and for being ‘frightfully excited and determined to have a thousand adventures’. But ‘my respect for her continues to grow. She’s got not only vast hoards of data, but a great many ideas, all rather formless and mixed, but clearly capable of crystallising in her mind.’ Alix sent a résumé of one of Klein’s papers for discussion in the British Society (fertile ground already since an interest in child analysis had been evinced by several of its members, including Nina Searl, Ella Sharpe, Susan Isaacs, Donald Winnicott and Barbara Low). Ernest Jones, the President and later Freud’s biographer, was enthusiastic (‘absolutely heart-and-soul whole-hogging pro-Melanie’, according to James Strachey). In July 1925 Klein visited London to give a course of lectures on child analysis, and her arrival for good in 1926 was a most natural consequence. Britain was to remain her home until she died in 1960, and the British Psycho-Analytical Society the vehicle for an extraordinarily creative and controversial career, a vehicle which was nevertheless driven almost to disintegration by the wrangles and bitterness that career provoked. That these animosities and the gossip on which they fed persisted for so long makes especially welcome Phyllis Grosskurth’s scholarly book, the first full biography of Klein.

Melanie Reizes was born in 1882 in Vienna. Her father was a doctor; her mother was forced by straitened financial circumstances to keep a shop selling plants and (bizarrely, since they were loathsome to her) reptiles. Melanie was the youngest of four children, of whom two were to die young, the third child Sidonie of scrofula at the age of eight and her adored brother Emmanuel at the age of 25, of heart failure brought about by tuberculosis and drug addiction. Emmanuel appears to have fantasised for some time about such an early death, thinking it would set a stamp of artistic merit on a life whose creative possibilities had been hinted but never achieved. Melanie at least believed that he ‘had a genius as a writer and as a musician’ and his influence on her was of a deep and ambivalent kind that may have been partly responsible for difficulties in her subsequent relations with men. Sidonie, too, was revered and loved by Melanie, who in turn was doted on by the family in general, though she believed herself to have been an unplanned child. Her eldest sister, Emilie, was by contrast a more distant figure. But it is here that difficulties of interpretation begin.

It is fair to say that one of the two main weaknesses of Professor Grosskurth’s book is its handling of Klein’s early life. There is simply very little evidence about it: the principal sources are a fragmentary Autobiography dictated in snatches near the end of Klein’s life, and a bundle of family letters, many of them from Klein’s mother Libussa. Grosskurth describes the Autobiography as ‘brief’, but she does not say how brief, and from the repeated attention drawn to ‘significant’ omissions one would never guess that it runs to a mere 22 pages of typescript, says little about the years after 1930, and is rambling enough for it to be of limited value as a source. The letters, too, need to be handled with care, especially since – as Grosskurth herself deftly uses them to show – Libussa was a dominant and self-dramatising person whose own accounts of people and events were often highly coloured. One particular episode is important. In 1908, Libussa informed Melanie that her sister Emilie had been conducting an adulterous affair as well as ruining her husband by extravagant living. For three years Emilie was treated with contempt in the family until Libussa discovered that the slander was unfounded. On the strength of a letter by Libussa informing Melanie of this development and saying, ‘you will be beside yourself because I have changed my opinion of Emilie,’ Grosskurth writes the following:

Why did Melanie adopt such an intransigently judgmental attitude toward her sister, unless she envied Emilie for seeming to have the fulfilled emotional life that she herself craved, as well as – in the face of all her troubles – a certain serenity? More fundamentally, she still retained the envy of a powerless baby sister. Melanie Klein was an embodiment of her own later theories: the world is not an objective reality, but a phantasmagoria peopled with our own fears and desires.

Given the importance of the concept of envy in Klein’s later theories, one can see the temptation to engage in such speculation, but the evidence will not warrant it. We have only Libussa’s word for it that Melanie was ‘intransigently judgmental’ – and posing as the lone defender of a misunderstood daughter is just the sort of role that would have appealed to Libussa. Melanie’s letters from this period have not survived, and the Autobiography reveals no trace of envy towards Emilie, unless one counts a remark that Libussa had some ‘cause for complaint’ about her, a remark no stronger than a similar comment made about her brother Emmanuel. In fact, since Klein’s later notion of envy is deeply bound up with ambivalence of feeling (the breast is envied precisely because it is also the source of all good) it might make more sense to search for the roots of Kleinian envy in her feelings towards her mother or brother. But that’s another story.

Nor does Grosskurth get all the details of her evidence right. She later treats as highly significant that there is no ‘reference to [Klein’s son] Hans’s death’ in the Autobiography: in fact the death is mentioned on page 9 of the typescript. Grosskurth also maintains that Klein wanted to hide the fact that her father was visited by patients at their home, but gave this away when she writes that at the age of 13 ‘she overheard him boast to a patient that his youngest daughter would go to the gymnasium’: in fact the Autobiography has him boasting to ‘someone’ and makes no reference to any patient. These are details that would be trivial if they were not used as the foundation for major psychoanalytic speculation. But it would be a mistake to see these faults, which are faults principally of the opening chapters, as typical of the entire book. Fortunately as the evidence becomes more plentiful Professor Grosskurth moves away from the sands of psychobiography onto comparative terra firma. By this time Melanie has married Arthur Klein (in 1903); discovered their sexual and emotional incompatibilities; suffered intense boredom in the succession of dreary provincial towns to which he is posted; had three children and a long series of depressive illnesses. By the outbreak of the First World War the marriage is clearly doomed, but Melanie has found a more lasting solace in the new science of psychoanalysis.

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