Book review: Marion Milner: The Life by Emma Letley

You don’t know Marion Milner; don’t pretend. But you certainly should because she was the rarest kind of thinker about our minds and our bodies: a psychoanalyst who wanted to reach out to the world, who thought creativity was the human condition not a neurosis, who put the body back into the cerebral business of analysing talk.

Marion Milner: The Life by Emma Letley

Routledge, 220pp, £26.99

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She was also painter, teacher and virtually the inventor of the journal as an art form in the 1930s (W H Auden approved). She made life richer. She may even make us saner.

She didn’t stuff her writing with heavyweight words that were meant to sound scientific. Instead, she used all that she knew – a fascination with witchcraft, wide reading of mystical texts, a passion for art and its history – to make analysis more humane. She saw rather little difference between her work in the consulting room and her work making images or writing books. Both were about bringing together the human surface and the less accessible human depths, and hoping for a good result.

She might have been a great novelist, because everything is about process. She shows what is happening as it happens, not where it leads. Everything is specific: how events and experiences add up to a life. Everything breathes.

Emma Letley’s biography is lucid, elegant and quite remarkably accessible for a scholarly work on psychoanalysis. Milner deserves that, because she was happy to write for a wide public, anyone who cared about how children are taught, anyone who painted or liked paintings, anyone who ever knew writers’ block. When she wrote about why children don’t learn, and showed how playing and doing are as much a part of learning as formal lessons, she wanted her theory to work in real classrooms.

She was so discreet she was sometimes invisible; she said she never wanted “to be legible”, to have her story known. She hid away the obvious clues to which men were her lovers, and only in her very last years – she lived into her nineties – did she tackle her troubled relationship with her son.

Milner is not an easy subject. Letley brilliantly lets the life bubble through the work and the career, as though we know Milner day by day rather than judging her in some obituary. This matters because it would be easy to reduce Milner to her connections. She was born into one of those families that work like a web, connecting now with a famous noisy physicist, now with the author of famous hymns, long ago with George Babbage, inventor of the computer; the first analyst she asked to talk to her husband was, inevitably, the brother of Virginia Woolf.

She stepped into the squabbling, claustrophobic world of British analysis as the self-effacing one who tried to compromise. She was neutral in the great analytic wars that started in the 1930s between the followers of Anna Freud and Melanie Klein; although she did paint a picture of the two rivals called The Hens. She had admirers but not so many disciples. She didn’t care much for diagnosis and putting patients in the right drawer in the filing cabinet.

What she knew was how to write about joy.

She knew about moments when what you sense is suddenly vivid and full of energy: looking out at a tree, perhaps, and in that moment discovering a response in your whole being, in body as well as mind. Travelling, she had a brilliant eye, but it was for the “wide, unfocused stare”, not the “narrow, deliberative concentration”; she goes out after rare orchids and stops in wonder at the white blossoms of a whole hill of wild garlic. Falling in love was her model for such moments, “images with a ‘still glow’”.

She wanted to get past the cant idea that the unconscious mind is a kind of dustbin of the soul where everything is shameful, and to reconnect mind with body. She’s the useful version of fashionable talk about consciousness because she knows writer’s block but she also knows the moments when you put away intellect and let the mind go as it wants; when the block breaks. She thought creativity, whatever its form, was the whole point of being human.

You may not know Marion Milner, but you will be glad when you do.