Psychoanalyst who lived in Hampstead and St John’s Wood used play to treat children

Melanie Klein

Melanie Klein - Credit: Archant

In the latest of our series commemorating people honoured with blue plaques, Adam Sonin explores the life of Melanie Klein, who split the British Psychoanalytic Society with her work analysing children through play.

Born into a solidly middle-class Jewish family, Melanie Klein was married at the age of 21.

Her husband’s work meant she had to travel widely and often far away from the intellectual omphalos she found in Vienna.

In Budapest in 1910, already the mother of three children, she discovered the work of Sigmund Freud and, with it, her vocation.

She underwent analysis with two of Freud’s closest disciples, Sandor Ferenczi and Karl Abraham, and her continuing interest in the treatment’s theories led to her estrangement and eventual divorce from her husband.

After qualifying as a psychoanalyst, she moved to London in 1926 where she lived, practised and wrote for the rest of her life.

Her interest lay in the psychoanalysis of children, about which she wrote widely, and her views were – and continue to be – controversial. As a result of these controversies and professional differences with her contemporary Anna Freud, she divided the British Psychoanalytical Society.

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Rather oddly, and given the tension with the Freud family, Sigmund’s architect son Ernst designed her London consulting rooms – his first professional commission in England.

In London, she met novelist Virginia Woolf, who described her as “a woman of character and force and some submerged – how shall I say – not craft, but subtlety: something working underground. A pull, a twist, like an undertow: menacing. A bluff grey-haired lady, with large bright imaginative eyes.”

Klein was born on March 30 1882 at Tiefer Gruben 8, Vienna. She was the daughter of doctor and dentist Moritz Reizes and Libussa Deutsch, the granddaughter of a liberal rabbi.

She was the youngest of four children and idolised an older sister who died when Klein was just four. As a result, she was devoted to her brother Emmanuel and his intellectual interests. But he also died, when she was 20.

The family was not wealthy and Klein was engaged by the age of 17 to engineer Arthur Stephen Klein. The couple married in 1903 and had a daughter Melitta, who also became a psychoanalyst. In 1904, Klein gave birth to two sons, one of whom died in a climbing accident. Motherhood interrupted her academic aspirations of studying medicine.

The couple moved often but Klein longed for the lively intellectual stimuli of Vienna. This, and an unhappy marriage, led to periods of depression in which her mother intervened and looked after the children while sending Klein away for recuperative tours on her own. The death of Klein’s mother – just four months after the birth of the youngest child – precipitated a crisis.

Now in Budapest, she discovered Freud’s Interpretation Of Dreams and shortly afterwards started in analysis with Ferenczi.

By 1919, he had convinced her that she might contribute to psychoanalytic discoveries by making observations of children. Her first paper, The Development Of A Child, published in 1921, was the result of observations of her own children. At the time, psychoanalysts were attempting to confirm Freud’s theories of child development, which he had sketched out from his work largely with adults.

Klein, however, went further than just research. She was the first to work therapeutically with young children and, to reach the child’s private world, she needed a method not based wholly on words. Her innovative idea was to turn to the child’s natural means of expression – play.

She gave each child a set of small toys, including animals, fences and bricks, and watched. Sometimes she engaged in the play, making interpretations of the unconscious. With this technique, she was able to analyse children in their third year.

After the family left Hungary in 1919, Klein went with her children to stay with her parents-in-law in Czechoslovakia. Her husband found work in Sweden – beginning a separation which ended in divorce in 1923.

In 1920, she met Abraham at a psychoanalytic congress and he persuaded her to move to Berlin, which she did in 1921.

Abraham was the leading analyst in the Berlin Psychoanalytical Society and a leading proponent of a formal training for new psychoanalysts. He encouraged her to continue her work with children and develop her play technique.

As a young single mother, Klein seems to have enjoyed Berlin life. Alix Strachey, the wife of Freud’s translator James Strachey, who was also in Berlin for analysis with Abraham, remarked of Klein: “She was frightfully excited and determined to have a thousand adventures, and soon infected me with some of her spirits.”

Alix Strachey was very impressed with Klein’s work and arranged for her to come to London to present a series of papers on her work with children. This took place during a three- week period in July 1925.

Klein’s talks were well received. Ernest Jones, the leading proponent of Freud’s work in Britain, invited Klein to come to London for a year to analyse the children of several analysts, including his own.

In 1926, Klein accepted the offer and eventually decided to stay permanently. For most of her life, she settled at 42 Clifton Hill in St John’s Wood, where a blue plaque was put up in 1985.

She published her major work The Psychoanalysis Of Children in 1932, detailing many theoretical views derived from her research.

Viennese analysts believed that Klein’s new ideas were sufficiently discrepant with Freud’s to cast doubt on whether she could be considered a psychoanalyst at all.

In 1934, she took British nationality and seemed to be installed as the leading psychoanalytic researcher in Britain.

The work done by Freud’s son Ernst on the interior of her Clifton Hill home was noted to be “rather Bauhaus, very attractive in its way, but some people felt it unsuitable for a Regency house”.

During the Second World War, Klein was one of the ringleaders in the “controversial discussions”. These were a series of quite fierce debates which were caused by theoretical and technical disagreements between the British Kleinians and the Viennese analysts who had fled to Britain from the Nazis and followed Anna Freud.

The debates led to a split in the British Psychoanalytic Society between the Kleinians, the Freudians and the Independents, a legacy that continues today.

Clifton Hill remained Klein’s home until 1953. Aged 71, she moved to her last home – a first-floor flat at 20 Bracknell Gardens in Hampstead. In 1960, she was diagnosed with cancer and died, after an operation, at University College Hospital on September 22 1960. Her body was cremated at Golders Green.

A obituary in The Times remarked: “The power and acuity of her intellect had strength and integrity, her originality and creativeness left one in no doubt that one was in touch with an outstanding personality.”