Bloomsbury/Freud, the Letters of James and Alix Strachey 1924-1925. Edited by Perry Meisel and Walter Kendrick (Basic Books, $21.95)
In terms of literary real estate, Bloomsbury remains a desirable neighborhood but, what with biographies, memoirs and letters, decidedly over-populated. When such things happen, people tend to settle on the fringes. The yearlong correspondence between James and Alix Strachey gives us a kind of Bloomsbury border area: a Holborn or Kings Cross.
James was a younger and relatively subdued brother of the resplendent Lytton. "Little Strachey," he came to be called. Alix, whose mother was a painter, moved on the edges of the Bloomsburies with sufficient agility to make Virginia Woolf dislike her, and try to stop her landing James and marrying in.
If this were all, the letters between James and Alix, with their peripheral gossip about Virginia and Leonard and Carrington and Maynard Keynes and Gerald Brenan would be relatively thin stuff. But the outskirts of Bloomsbury were the outskirts of another tribal workshop, as well.
Active in the British Sector
The Stracheys were early and active in the British sector of the psychoanalytic movement. Junior to Ernest Jones, its viceroy, they became the principal translators and editors of Freud's works; and by the time James died in the late '60s he, with Alix's assistance, had been responsible for 23 of the 24 volumes of the Standard Edition.
In 1920, when they married, they went to Vienna to be analyzed by the master. Alix became ill and had to break off. This seems to have caused a sense of domestic inequity. In 1924, while James stayed home translating and taking care of their house in Gordon Square and of such lodgers as Virginia's brother, Adrian, and Keynes' future wife, Lydia Lopokova, Alix went to Berlin for a year's analysis.
The year's letters, written almost daily, are a link between two influential and clannish communities. They have been edited by Professors Perry Meisel and Walter Kendrick with extensive footnotes, and a long introduction and epilogue that placed the Stracheys in both their Bloomsbury and Freudian contexts.
Is the juxtaposition faintly forced? It is suggestive, in any case. Except for Virginia Woolf, the Bloomsbury circle was keenly interested in psychoanalysis. The Woolfs' Hogarth Press published the Stracheys' editions, and Virginia's brother joined them in becoming a practicing analyst. On the other hand, the editors seem to suggest that Freud favored Strachey not only for his translations but also for his connections; and Ernest Jones prodded persistently at Bloomsbury society without ever quite making it in.
There are certainly affinities. Psychoanalysis, you might say, was Bloomsbury's reductive introspection pursued by other means. It must have bemused this guilded intellectual set to find that their penchant for talking about states of mind and deciphering hidden motives, preferably sexual, should be transformed into a discipline, and a lucrative one at that.
It was not lucrative for James. Apart from paying one guinea per hour for his analyses--Freud agreed to the figure as long as the exchange rate should hold up--he had trouble getting his own patients, at least during the period of the correspondence. Money worries pinched both of them. James writes enviously of Dr. Jones' three-guinea fee and insistence on a minimum of 70 hours. He worries about losing one of his own two patients. "What if Winnie should crack up?" he writes.
The letters are revealing and gossipy. Neither James nor Alix were especially good writers, nor were they particularly witty. They had the sharp Bloomsbury eye, however, and its sharp tongue. To write with at least a touch of malice about all those they encountered was virtually an article of marital loyalty; praise would have been mutual betrayal.
Alix provides vivid and amusing accounts of Berlin's Freudian circle. She is splendid on a psychoanalysts' picnic and on the new hat of her friend, Melanie Klein. "It's a vast, voluminous affair in bright yellow, with a huge brim and an enormous cluster, a whole garden, of mixed flowers . . . The whole effect is that of an overblown tea-rose with a slightly rouged core." She gives accounts of the theoretical discussions and lectures, and reveals her own gloomy and hesitant moods, relieved by food binges.
James' letters are affectionate and concerned, almost oppressively so. For Alix, the year in Berlin seems to have been as much sabbatical as healing. She remained in analysis for another 25 years after returning to England. Both had outside romantic interests, according to the editors, yet stayed close.
It was a typical Bloomsbury marriage, held together--perhaps less typically--by Freud; whose rendering, entire, in English became their lifelong work and bond.