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‘Speaking Kleinian’: Susan Isaacs as Ursula Wise and the Inter-War Popularisation of Psychoanalysis


How did the complex concepts of psychoanalysis become popular in early twentieth-century Britain? This article examines the contribution of educator and psychoanalyst Susan Isaacs (1885–1948) to this process, as well as her role as a female expert in the intellectual and medical history of this period. Isaacs was one of the most influential British psychologists of the inter-war era, yet historical research on her work is still limited. The article focuses on her writing as ‘Ursula Wise’, answering the questions of parents and nursery nurses in the popular journal Nursery World, from 1929 to 1936. Researched in depth for the first time, Isaacs’ important magazine columns reveal that her writing was instrumental in disseminating the work of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in Britain. Moreover, Isaacs’ powerful rebuttals to behaviourist, disciplinarian parenting methods helped shift the focus of caregivers to the child’s perspective, encouraging them to acknowledge children as independent subjects and future democratic citizens. Like other early psychoanalysts, Isaacs was not an elitist; she was in fact committed to disseminating her ideas as broadly as possible. Isaacs taught British parents and child caregivers to ‘speak Kleinian’, translating Klein’s intellectual ideas into ordinary language and thus enabling their swift integration into popular discourse.

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1. See Michal Shapira, The War Inside: Psychoanalysis, Total War and the Making of the Democratic Citizen in Postwar Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Sandra Ellesley, Psychoanalysis in Early Twentieth Century England: A Study in the Popularization of Ideas (unpublished PhD thesis: University of Essex, 1995); Dean Rapp, ‘The Reception of Freud by the British Press: General Interest and Literary Magazines, 1920–5’, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 24 (1988), 191–201; Dean Rapp, ‘The Early Discovery of Freud by the British General Educated Public, 1912–19’, Social History of Medicine, 3, 2 (1990), 217–43; Graham Richards, ‘Britain on the Couch: The Popularization of Psychoanalysis in Britain, 1918–40’, Science in Context 13 (2000), 183–230; John Forrester, ‘Freud in Cambridge’, Critical Quarterly, 46, 2 (2004), 1–26; Sally Alexander, ‘Primary maternal preoccupation: D.W. Winnicott and social democracy in mid-twentieth century Britain’, in Sally Alexander and Barnard Taylor (eds), History and Psyche: Culture, Psychoanalysis and the Past (London: Palgrave, 2012), 149–68; Daniel Pick, Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and the Analysts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

2. Charles Mowat, Britain between the Wars 1918–40 (London: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 214; Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Long Weekend: A Social History of Great Britain 1918–39 (London: Faber & Faber, 1940), 103. See also R. D. Hinshelwood, ‘Psychoanalysis in Britain: Points of Cultural Access, 1893–1918’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 76 (1995), 135–51.

3. See Richards, op. cit. (note 1).

4. Shapira, op. cit. (note 1). On the eclectic nature of psychology at the time and for theories beyond psychoanalysis, see Mathew Thomson, Psychological Subjects: Identity, Culture, and Health in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Rhodri Hayward, The Transformation of the Psyche in British Primary Care, 1880–1970 (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

5. See press cuttings at the DC/SI Papers of Susan Isaacs Collection at the Archives of the Institute of Education, London. All the unpublished magazine columns I used and referenced below are taken from the Archives.

6. See Adrian Woolridge, Measuring the Mind: Education and Psychology in England c. 1860–1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 111–35; Laura Cameron, ‘Science, Nature and Hatred: “Finding Out” at the Malting House Garden School, 1924–9’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24 (2006), 851–72. For more information on her life, see these biographies (not written by historians): Dorothy E. M. Gardner, Susan Isaacs (London: Methuen, 1969); Philip Graham, Susan Isaacs: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children (London: Karnac, 2009); Lydia A. H. Smith (ed.), To Understand and to Help: The Life and Work of Susan Isaacs (1885–1948) (London: Associated University Press, 1985). Shaul Bar-Haim finds the existing literature on Isaacs to be relatively wide, but he also agrees that many aspects of her life and work are still overlooked. See Shaul Bar-Haim, ‘The Liberal Playground: Susan Isaacs, Psychoanalysis and Progressive Education in the Interwar Era’, History of the Human Sciences, 30 (2017), 95.

7. On the emerging scientific interest in childhood see: Denise Riley, War in the Nursery: Theories of the Child and Mother (London: Virago, 1983); Nikolas Rose, The Psychological Complex: Psychology, Politics and Society in England, 1869–1939 (London: K. Paul, 1985); Christina Hardyment, Dream Babies: Child Care from Locke to Spock (London: Cape, 1983); Daniel Beekman, The Mechanical Baby: A Popular History of the Theory and Practice of Child Raising (London: Dobson, 1977); Deborah Dwork, War is Good for Babies and Other Young Children: A History of the Infant and Child Welfare Movement in England, 1898–1918 (New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987); Lutz D. H. Sauerteig, ‘Loss of Innocence: Albert Moll, Sigmund Freud and the Invention of Childhood Sexuality around 1900’, Medical History, 56 (2012), 156–83.

8. Woolridge, op. cit. (note 6), 111–35.

9. Isaacs Susan, Intellectual Growth in Young Children (London: Routledge, 1930); Susan Isaacs, Social Development in Young Children (London: Routledge, 1933).

10. Susan Isaacs, The Nursery Years: Birth to Six (London: Routledge, 1929); Susan Isaacs, The Children We Teach: Seven to Eleven Years (London: University of London Press, 1932); Malcolm Pines, ‘Isaacs, Susan Sutherland (1885–1948)’, (2004), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online.

11. As suggested by Pines, op. cit. (note 10).

12. As suggested in Woolridge, op. cit. (note 6), 111. For a summary of her career see Gardner, op. cit. (note 6) Appendix III, 185–6; John Rickman, ‘Susan Sutherland Isaacs, C.B.E., M.A., D.Sc. (Vict.), Hon. D.Sc. (Adelaide)’, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 31 (1950), 279–85.

13. Woolridge, op. cit. (note 6), 114. Traces of Klein’s early 1920s papers could be found in Isaacs’ magazine writings. The most marked influence comes from the following essays: Melanie Klein, ‘The development of a child’ [1921] and ‘The role of the school in the libidinal development of the child’ [1923] in Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation: And Other Works 1921–45 (New York: Free Press, 2002), 1–54, 59–76. As is well known, later on, it was actually Isaacs who in the 1940s contributed the most important paper to the Kleinian canon: Susan Isaacs, ‘The nature and function of phantasy’, in Pearl King and Riccardo Steiner (eds), The Freud–Klein Controversies, 1941–5 (New York: Routledge, 1991), 264–321.

14. Male analysts like Sándor Ferenczi and Karl Abraham encouraged Klein, for example, to analyse children, something that they and other male physicians saw as particularly suitable for women. See Melanie Klein, Autobiography – Dictated Incomplete Autobiography of K, Melanie Klein’s Collection at the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre of the Wellcome Institute, CMAC/PP/KLE/A.52.

15. See note 1.

16. Stephen Kotkin uses the analytic notion of ‘speaking Bolshevik’ to refer to the language people spoke in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and how the ways in which they spoke about themselves became refracted through the lens of Bolshevism. I also find this notion useful to describe how Isaacs taught Britons to ‘speak Kleinian’ in everyday life. Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

17. See Woolridge, op. cit. (note 6), 111. See also other references in note 6.

18. See Laura Cameron and John Forrester, ‘Tansley’s Psychoanalytic Network: An Episode Out of the Early History of Psychoanalysis in England’, Psychoanalysis and History, 2 (2002), 189–256.

19. Pines, op. cit. (note 10); Gardner, op. cit. (note 6), 15–36.

20. Brierley Susan S., An Introduction to Psychology (London: Methuen, 1921), 1–7, 42.

21. Woolridge, op. cit. (note 6), 111–14.

22. Lampe David, Pyke: The Unknown Genius (London: Evans Brothers, 1959), 30.

23. Isaacs Susan, Intellectual Growth of Young Children (London: Routledge, 1930), 1450.

24. Cameron, op. cit. (note 6), 853.

25. Graham Philip, ‘Susan Isaacs and the Malting House School’, Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 34, 1 (2008), 89.

26. Cameron, op. cit. (note 6), 853.

27. Isaacs, The Intellectual Growth, op. cit. (note 9) and the more Kleinian book: Isaacs, Social Development, op. cit. (note 9).

28. Graham, op. cit. (note 25), 21.

29. Isaacs Susan, ‘Review of Piaget’s The Child’s Conception of the World ’, Mind, 38, 152 (1929), 506513.

30. Woolridge, op. cit. (note 6), 121–3.

31. Woolridge, op. cit. (note 6), 114–15. In 1921, this was one of the only children’s schools in the world to gather inspiration from psychoanalysis. Cameron, op. cit. (note 6), 852. During the Second World War, Klein lived with Isaacs in Cambridge, where Isaacs conducted her important study on the psychological effects of evacuation. Isaacs was also a key supporter of Klein during the Anna Freud–Melanie Klein Controversial Discussions. Cameron op. cit. (note 6), 853.

32. Cameron op. cit. (note 6), 867–8; Graham, op. cit. (note 25), 7.

33. Rickman, op. cit. (note 12), 281–2.

34. James Strachey’s letter from February 17 1925, in Perry Meisell and Walter Kendrick (eds), Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey, 1924–5 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1986), 205; Woolridge, op. cit. (note 6), 117–18.

35. Cameron, op. cit. (note 6), 867; Woolridge, op. cit. (note 6), 119.

36. Klein Melanie, ‘Symposium on Child-Analysis’, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 8 (1927), 339370.

37. The word ‘phantasy’ in Kleinian psychoanalysis refers to the mental representation of aninstinct; it is also the basic unconscious stuff of all mental processes. See Elizabeth Bott Spillius, ‘Developments in Kleinian Thought: Overview and Personal View’, Psychoanalytic Inquiry14 (1994), 324–64; Susan Isaacs, ‘The nature and function of phantasy’, op. cit. (note 13).

38. Haynes Sarah, ‘“Rabbits and Rebels”: the medicalisation of maladjusted children in mid-twentieth century Britain’, in Jackson Mark (ed.), Health and the Modern Home (London: Routledge, 2007), 141142.

39. Ibid., 142.

40. Quoted in Graham, Susan Isaacs, op. cit. (note 6), 191.

41. Isaacs, The Nursery Years, op. cit. (note 10). See Isaacs’ critical review of Watson’s habit psychology in Susan Isaacs, ‘Some notes on the Prevalence of Neurotic Difficulties in Children’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 2 (1932), 71–91.

42. Isaacs, The Nursery Years, op. cit. (note 10). See also essays by Susan Isaacs on ‘Habits’ and by Melanie Klein on ‘Weaning’ in John Rickman (ed.), On the Upbringing of Children (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench & Trubner, 1935), 123–66 and 31–6. On the history of early psychoanalysis and the invention of play technique, see Claudine and Pierre Geissmann, A History of Child Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1998), 109–33.

43. Cathy Urwin and Elaine Sharland, ‘From bodies to minds in childcare literature: advice to parents in inter-war Britain’, in Roger Cooter (ed.), In the Name of the Child: Health and Welfare in England, 1880–1940 (London: Routledge, 1992), 181–8.

44. Ibid., 176–80; Truby King, Feeding and Care of Baby (London: Macmillan, 1913); J. B. Watson, Psychological Care of the Infant and Child (London: Allen & Unwin, 1928).

45. Urwin and Sharland, op. cit. (note 43). See also Deborah Thom, ‘Wishes, anxieties, play and gestures: child guidance in inter-war England’, in Roger Cooter (ed.), In the Name of the Child (New York: Routledge, 1992), 200–19.

46. John Stewart, ‘ “I thought you would want to come and see his home”: child guidance and psychiatric social work in inter-war Britain’, in Mark Jackson (ed.), Health and the Modern Home (London: Routledge, 2007), 111. On the professional development of English psychiatry see: Akinobu Takabayashi, ‘Surviving the Lunacy Act of 1890: English Psychiatrists and Professional Development during the Early Twentieth Century’, Medical History, 61 (2017), 246–69.

47. As argued by John Stewart, ibid., 113.

48. Ibid., 113.

49. Ibid., 113–15.

50. Ibid., 119. Sarah Haynes emphasised that contemporary medical notions of home and the domestic environment, however, encompassed many factors including sibling relations, play fellows or the media. See Haynes, op. cit. (note 38), 139.

51. It should be noted that both Isaacs and Klein later believed that psychoanalysis and education should be differentiated because they are not one and the same thing. See Shaul Bar-Haim, op. cit. (note 6), 105–6, 108–9.

52. Stewart, op. cit. (note 46), 122.

53. On the concern for ‘psychological rebels’ vs ‘psychological rabbits’, see Haynes, op. cit. (note 38), 129–52; on Klein, 141–2, 146.

54. Ibid., 132–41; 142–7 and my analysis below.

55. Graham, op. cit. (note 6), 197–202.

56. Urwin and Sharland, op. cit. (note 43), 185–8.

57. According to Graham, op. cit. (note 6), 207–9.

58. Ibid., 207–9.

59. See for example, Susan Isaacs, ‘Nervous Habits’, Nursery World, 27 August 1930, 432.

60. Susan Isaacs, ‘The Nervous Child’, Nursery World, 29 June 1932, 142.

61. For example, a nurse of a boy who turned his toes in was told by Isaacs to consult expert advice about remedial exercise. See Susan Isaacs, ‘The Nervous Child’, Nursery World, 29 June 1932, 141–2.

62. On the ‘problematic child’, see: Stewart, op. cit. (note 46); Haynes, op. cit. (note 38).

63. See Ben Shephard, A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2001), 21–32.

64. Susan Isaacs, ‘Ursula Wise Writes about the RealProblem Child’, Nursery World, 25 June 1930, 111. In another case, a mother wrote about her fear that her boy of seven and a half, sensitive, poor at sport and full of nervy ticks, might turn into a ‘cry-baby’ and become a laughing stock at school. Isaacs confirmed that he is indeed ‘neurotic in type’ and needs psychological treatment. See Susan Isaacs, ‘Sensitive or “Nervy”’, Nursery World, 18 February 1931, 405–6.

65. Susan Isaacs, ‘Fears and Phobias’, Nursery World,15 October 1930, 671–2.

66. Susan Isaacs, ‘Sensitive or “Nervy”’, Nursery World, 18 February 1931, 406.

67. Ibid., 406.

68. See also Susan Isaacs, ‘Fears and Phobias’, Nursery World, 15 October 1930, 672.

69. Susan Isaacs, ‘Fears and Fantasies’, Nursery World, 18 March 1931, 544–5.

70. Susan Isaacs, ‘Tempers & Tantrums’, Nursery World, 30 August 1933, 405.

71. Ibid., 405–6, 423.

72. Susan Isaacs, ‘A Destructive Child’, Nursery World, 6 September 1933, 443–4, 448.

73. See, for example, Susan Isaacs, ‘Nervous Children’, Nursery World, 12 February 1930. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit. (note 6), 233.

74. Susan Isaacs, ‘Nervous Children’, Nursery World, 12 February 1930. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit. (note 6), 233. Isaacs was referring in this text to unconscious phantasies (with ‘ph’), but as in her other popular writings, she often used the word ‘fantasies’ (with ‘f’). See note 38.

75. Ibid., 233.

76. Susan Isaacs, ‘Two Year Olds are often Cruel’, Nursery World, 5 August 1931, 326.

77. Susan Isaacs, ‘Is Your Child Excitable and Highly-Strung?’ Nursery World, 7 October 1931, 617.

78. Ibid., 618.

79. Susan Isaacs, ‘Fears and Phantasies’, 7 January 1932, 293.

80. Susan Isaacs, ‘The Destructive Child’, Nursery World, 15 June 1932, 74, 87.

81. See Susan Isaacs, ‘Dislikes & Phobias’, Nursery World, 6 March 1935, 493.

82. Susan Isaacs, ‘Fear and Fussiness’, Nursery World, 22 April 1936, 810, 819.

83. Susan Isaacs, ‘Jealousy is often the Cause of Tempers & Tantrums’, Nursery World, 8 July 1931, 197.

84. See also the popular book Klein Melanie and Riviere Joan, Love, Hate and Reparation (New York: Norton, 1964).

85. Susan Isaacs, ‘Jealousy’, op. cit. (note 83), 198.

86. Ibid., 198.

87. Susan Isaacs, ‘The Nervous Child’, Nursery World, 29 June 29, 1932, 141.

88. In ‘Is Your Child Excitable and Highly-Strung?’, the mother of an 8-year-old girl described her as a very excitable child who also stammered. Isaacs answered in a way that revealed her optimistic and almost naïve trust in experts. All experts on stammering, she said, are agreed that fixing on the child’s stammering will make it worst. The best is to leave the child alone and seek a specialist’s advice and proper treatment. She expressed confidence that they would certainly help the child. Susan Isaacs, ‘Is Your Child Excitable and Highly-Strung?’ Nursery World, 7 October 1931, 617.

89. Isaacs Susan, ‘Fears and Phobias’, Nursery World, 15 October 1930, 686.

90. Susan Isaacs, ‘Fear of Bodily Hurt’, Nursery World, 30 May 1944, 959.

91. Susan Isaacs, ‘Tantrums and Tempers’, Nursery World, 24 September 1930, 567–8.

92. Graham, op. cit. (note 6), 210–16; Urwin and Sharland, op. cit. (note 43), 180.

93. Susan Isaacs, ‘Nervous Habits by Ursula Wise’, Nursery World, 27 August 1930, 431.

94. Ibid., 431–2.

95. Susan Isaacs, ‘Jealousy’, Nursery World, 29 March 1930, 594.

96. Susan Isaacs, ‘Tantrums and Tempers’, Nursery World, 24 September 1930, 567.

97. Susan Isaacs, ‘Unkindness and Greed’, Nursery World, 27 November 1935, 960.

98. Susan Isaacs, ‘The Destructive Child’, Nursery World, 15 June 1932, 88.

99. Ibid., 88.

100. Susan Isaacs, ‘Is Your Child Excitable and Highly-Strung?’ Nursery World, 7 October 1931, 640.

101. See Shapira, op. cit. (note 1); Harry Hendrick, Child Welfare: Historical Dimensions, Contemporary Debate (Bristol: The Policy Press, 2003).

102. Shapira, op. cit. (note 1), 17. Sally Alexander similarly argued that the ideas of Donald Winnicott, Isaacs’ colleague, were part of the ethical and practical thinking that informed the British welfare state and the ethos of social democracy, see ‘D.W. Winnicott and the social democratic vision’, in Daniel Pick and Matt ffytche (eds), Psychoanalysis in the Age of Totalitarianism (London: Routledge, 2006),114–31.

103. Woolridge, op. cit. (note 6), 130.

104. In the Malting School, a child spat in Isaacs’ face, and she patiently asked him to apologise. See James Strachey’s letter dated 17 February 1925 in Meisell and Kendrick (eds), op. cit. (note 34), 205.

105. Susan Isaacs, ‘Leaders or Followers’, Nursery World, 13 November 1929. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit. (note 6), 225.

106. Ibid., 225. Isaacs believed that the nursery school was an essential extension of the function of the family and the home. The school extended the range of the child’s social contacts, creating a balance with the tight unit of the family as it allowed the child another outlet for feelings and emotions. See Susan Isaacs, Education Value of the Nursery School (London: Headly, 1952), 28–31.

107. Susan Isaacs, ‘Leaders’, op. cit. (note 105), 225.

108. Susan Isaacs, ‘You MustObey!’, Nursery World, 20 November 1929. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit (note 6), 226–8.

109. Susan Isaacs, ‘The Punishment’, Nursery World, 20 November 1929. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit. (note 6), 229.

110. See for example, Susan Isaacs, ‘Childhood Problems’, Nursery World, 18 December 1929. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit. (note 6), 229–30.

111. See for example Susan Isaacs, ‘Childhood Problems, Cont.’, Nursery World, 25 December 1929. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit. (note 6), 231–2.

112. See also Susan Isaacs, ‘The Value of Companionship’, Nursery World, 26 March 1930. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit. (note 6), 238–9; see also Susan Isaacs, ‘Training in Independence’, Nursery World, 2 April 1930. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit. (note 6), 239–40.

113. Susan Isaacs, ‘Old-Fashioned or Modern Methods’, Nursery World, 15 January 1930. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit. (note 6), 235.

114. Ibid., 235–6.

115. Susan Isaacs, ‘The Destructive Child’, op. cit. (note 80), 73.

116. Susan Isaacs, ‘The Mother’s Attitude to the Child’, Nursery World, 5 March 1930. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit. (note 6), 236–7.

117. Susan Isaacs, ‘Two Year Olds are often Cruel’, Nursery World, 5 August 1931, 325.

118. Susan Isaacs, ‘Jealousy’, Nursery World, 29 March 1933, 325.

119. Susan Isaacs, ‘Unkindness and Greed’, Nursery World, 27 November 1935, 951.

120. Susan Isaacs, ‘I Smacked Her’, Nursery World, 22 January 1936. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit. (note 8), 260–1. See also Susan Isaacs, ‘A Child’s Point of View’, Nursery World, 4 June 1930. Reprinted in Smith (ed.), op. cit. (note 8), 245–55. This piece describes the changing power dynamic between nurses and children.

121. See also Urwin and Sharland, op. cit. (note 43), 183–5.

122. Further studies on the process of popularisation of psychoanalysis by women analysts are called for, beyond the early work that was done in the field, see note 1 above.

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