Darling Francesca: Bion, Love-Letters and Madness

By Sayers, Janet | Journal of European Studies, June-September 2002 | Go to article overview

Darling Francesca: Bion, Love-Letters and Madness


Sayers, Janet, Journal of European Studies


Introduction

Wilfred Bion is, today, one of the foremost influences on British psychoanalysis. This is largely thanks to work he did during the time he was writing love-letters to his fiancee, later his wife, Francesca, beginning in 1951. In the following pages I will seek to bring this out by developing an aspect of my account of Bion's life and work in my last book, Kleinians. (1) I will first describe Bion's work 'before Francesca', as he once called this period of his life. I will then go on to quote some of his early love-letters to Francesca and their bearing on his ideas about madness. Lastly, I will indicate how material in these letters in turn informed his revolutionary ideas about health and madness in which he turned Freud's ideas about dreaming and the unconscious on their head in insisting on dreaming as central to our wide-awake consciousness of, and attention to, what goes on between lover and beloved, patient and analyst, which he in turn read back into early mothering.

Before Francesca

Bion was born on 8 September 1897 in North-West India. When he was eight he started school, at Bishop's Stortford College in England. During World War I he served in a tank battalion. (2) He then studied history at Queen's College, Oxford, and after having psychotherapy, not least because of the 'shell shock' he had suffered in the war, he decided to become a psychoanalyst. He studied and qualified in medicine from University College, London. And in the early 1930s he began work at the Tavistock Clinic where his patients included Samuel Beckett.

During World War II Bion initiated group psychology experiments as a psychiatrist working in a rehabilitation unit for soldiers, and in officer selection. (3) He returned to work at the Tavistock Clinic after the war, and from 1948 ran therapy groups there. He conceptualized what went on in these groups in terms of the ideas of Melanie Klein with whom he had begun analysis, in large part because of his distress at feeling emotionally shut off from his daughter, Parthenope, by his grief at the death of her mother -- his first wife, Betty Jardine -- within hours of Parthenope's birth on 27 February 1945.

Summarizing his group psychology experiences, he concluded that proto-mental phenomena surface in groups in the form of hopes and fears about sexual pairing, fight-flight and dependency. (4) He described this effect of inviting people to study what goes on psychologically between them in groups as stirring up anxieties from childhood, as described by Klein, (5) about what might happen were one to give way to curiosity about what goes on inside one's mother's body. He linked the disaster feared to be the outcome of this curiosity to the disaster that befell Oedipus on pursuing with the Sphinx his curiosity about his origins. (6)

Bion wrote up his group psychology observations in articles published from 1940 onwards. (7) In November 1950 he also presented his first account of a case of individual treatment to the British Psycho-Analytical Society (BPAS). In his paper he described a patient defending against psychological involvement with others, with Bion for instance, through treating him as though he were an 'imaginary twin' of himself. (8) That was all before Francesca.

Love-letters

Within months of qualifying for membership of the BPAS with his 'imaginary twin' paper, Bion met and fell in love with Francesca. He first caught sight of her in March 1951 in the dining room of the Tavistock Clinic. She was 28 and had also suffered the grief of widowhood. No longer feeling able to continue her original ambition to become an opera singer, she was working as a research assistant. Bion persuaded a mutual colleague, Ken Rice, to introduce them, and they soon began seeing and writing to each other almost every day.

Separated from her on Good Friday, Bion wrote to her from his home in Iver Heath. …

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