Back to contents
Number 13: Spring 2018

Reviews: Freud in Cambridge. John Forrester and Laura Cameron. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 2017. 695pp. ISBN 978-0- 521-86190-8. Psychoanalysis in Britain, 1893-1913: Histories and Historiography. Philip Kuhn. Lexington Books: London and New York. 2017. 444pp. ISBN 978-1-498-50522-2.

Barry Watt

It should be no surprise then, that it is precisely a forgotten dream that provides a vital but overlooked clue for a radical reassessment of the formative years of psychoanalysis in Britain. Sometime in 1916, Arthur Tansley – botanist, ecologist and the man who introduced the notion of an ‘ecosystem’ into scientific discourse – had a dream that would change the course of his life. Its impact would eventually see him resign his post at Cambridge University, temporarily abandoning his ecological research to spend a year on Freud’s couch in Vienna. Despite never training as an analyst, Tansley’s dream sparked a lifelong study of and involvement with psychoanalysis. Long revered as one of the foremost natural scientists of his generation, esteemed for having professionally established ecological science in Britain, few if any now recall Tansley as the 1920 author of the first and bestselling book of its time on psychoanalysis: The New Psychology and its Relation to Life. Reprinted twice within eight months and translated into Swedish and German, it sold over 10,000 copies in Britain and 4,000 copies in the USA in under a year. Comparatively, Psycho-Analysis, written and published the same year by founder member of The British Psychoanalytical Society, Barbara Low, managed a little over 4,000 sales. 

In many ways, Tansley is the hero of the late John Forrester’s and Laura Cameron’s ground-breaking and meticulously researched new history of the arrival of psychoanalysis in Britain, Freud in Cambridge. In conjunction with Philip Kuhn’s similarly painstakingly documented and evidenced Psychoanalysis in Britain, 1893-1913: Histories and Historiographies, 2017 will surely stand as the moment our knowledge and understanding of the earliest arrival of psychoanalysis in Britain was definitively revised. As Forrester and Cameron demonstrate, ‘by following the trail’ of Tansley and his dream, it is possible to ‘discover that the early history of psychoanalysis in England was by no means confined to the professional and institutional lines that Jones and even Freud, had in mind’ (2017: 8). Building on Forrester’s and Cameron’s foregrounding of Tansley’s dream, against the platitudes of authorised histories, I would suggest that it is precisely Tansley’s metaphor of an ecosystem – a non-stratified web without a centre, a community of mutually interdependent living and non-living organisms – that offers the best image for the development and growth of psychoanalysis, both in its early years and right up to the present day. 

This is a history that recounts the enormous impact psychoanalysis had in almost all areas of British life, extending well beyond the remit of the official Freud/Jones narrative. In the intellectual and institutional sphere, it problematises the standardly accepted accounts of psychoanalysis’ lines of transmission and dissemination, reframing some of the most far reaching questions that can be raised concerning the relationship of psychoanalysis to literature, philosophy, the medical, empirical and human sciences. Outside the privileged sphere of academic interest and intellectual inquiry, it is also a history that casts the rapidly changing nature of popular culture, morals and sentiments in the first thirty years of twentieth century Britain, in a new light. 

The question of how, exactly, psychoanalysis initially took root on British shores, has long been understudied, obscured and side-lined from scrutiny. The almost exclusively circulated and repeated version, puts the successful spread of British psychoanalysis down to the tireless organising, relentless agitating and advocating of Jones. And, despite his own personal mythologizing, there is no doubting Jones’ crucial and pivotal role in this history. However, the authorised version he first conceived in fidelity to Freud, focusing on the unfolding of psychoanalysis as centred in London and invariably tied to the activities of The Institute of Psychoanalysis, masks the far richer and broader context of the early British reception, distorting and diminishing the nature and character of the extensive excitement and inquisitiveness surrounding psychoanalytic thinking, that went well beyond a handful of languid bohemians and pensive intellectuals.