Black and white photograph of Joan Riviere

Joan Riviere

Early life and introduction to analysis

Joan Hodgson Verrall was born in Brighton, England in 1883. Her father was a solicitor with important literary connections. She was not very close to her mother, who had been a governess, and who educated Joan herself while she was a young child. Joan was not happy at the girls’ boarding school she later attended, Wycombe Abbey. At the age of 17, she spent a year in Gotha, Germany, and learnt the language so well that, several years later, she was able to translate Sigmund Freud’s work with great fluency and skill. In 1906, at the age of 23, she married a barrister named Evelyn Riviere.

Riviere was emotionally very close to her father, and his premature death in 1909 was so upsetting to her that she spent several periods in sanatoria. She later described having had a ‘breakdown’ at this time. Her intense emotional difficulties led her to enter psychoanalysis with Ernest Jones in 1916. Jones did not deal sensitively enough with her positive transference and involved her in several of his personal situations. This led to Jones referring her to Freud for further treatment. Her analysis with him took place in Vienna in 1922. Freud understood Riviere better than Jones had, but the analysis was very short. Riviere later told Herbert Rosenfeld that she resented the fact that Freud thought of her as a translator rather than as a patient.

Although the analysis with Jones was not successful, he had appreciated Riviere’s remarkable understanding of the psychoanalytic process, and he referred patients to her once she herself became an analyst. On her return to London from Vienna, Riviere became an important member of the British Psycho-Analytical Society. She became a training analyst in 1930 and analysed, among others, John Bowlby, Susan Isaacs and Donald Winnicott.

Developing Kleinian ideas

Riviere played an important role in the development and expression of Melanie Klein’s ideas, and made several bold and original contributions to psychoanalytic theory herself, the most significant being, ‘A contribution to the analysis of the negative therapeutic reaction’ (1936). In this paper Riviere incorporated Klein’s findings relating to the depressive position, describing for the first time the concept of a defensive organisation, seen as a protection against psychic pain. This highly organised system of defence against the unconscious depressive condition serves as a disguise to conceal the latter. The idea of such a sophisticated system of defence has commanded the considerable and sustained interest of succeeding analysts.

Understanding female sexuality

One of her most famous papers, ‘Womanliness as a masquerade’ (1929) examines an area of sexual development in which the femininity of certain women can be found to be a mask that is used to hide rivalry with and hatred of men. Fraudulent femininity covers up a wish for masculinity that must be hidden out of a fear of retribution. In this paper, Riviere demonstrates with convincing clinical material a fraudulent femininity in a certain type of woman, not overtly homosexual, but not fully heterosexual. Riviere traces the roots of the homosexual development in women to frustration during sucking or weaning, which gives rise to intense sadism towards both parents, particularly the mother.

Later, in ‘Jealousy as a mechanism of defence’ (1932), Riviere gave a broader understanding of the complexities of women’s sexual development. She makes an original contribution in understanding and demonstrating that it is oral envy which leads the morbidly jealous woman to search for unattainable love and to feel deprived. She describes with clarity and precision the spoiling that underlies Oedipal jealousy. In this she is paving the way for Klein’s later work in Envy and Gratitude (1957).

While Riviere greatly admired Freud’s capacity to explore the unconscious, she took him to task for his views of female sexuality, particularly the way in which he ignored the little girl’s interest in men and the significance of her playing with dolls. Furthermore, she challenged Freud in his denial of both young girls’ and young boys’ awareness of the vagina. To him, women were failed men. Although she was not directly involved in the emancipation of women, Riviere’s contribution to the understanding of the complexities of women’s sexual development came to be increasingly valued.

The Controversial Discussions

During the Controversial Discussions in the early 1940s, Riviere’s contributions were invaluable. Her ability to express complex theoretical insights in a persuasive, straightforward manner helped, eventually, to resolve the difficulties generated by the conflict between Klein and Anna Freud’s differing approaches to psychoanalysis. Her ability to position Klein’s theories within the context of Sigmund Freud’s discoveries is illustrated in her paper, ‘On the genesis of psychical conflict in earliest infancy’ (1936), delivered in Vienna in honour of Freud’s 80th birthday.

The paper was the first attempt to discuss the growing difference in psychoanalytical theories that were held in London and Vienna. This was particularly the case as they pertained to the topics of oral sadism, projection, and introjection in infancy. It is the clearest and most beautifully expressed outline of Kleinian theory as it was at that time, lucidly describing the sufferings of infants and children as they struggle with love and hate for their objects.

Exploring bereavement

Riviere’s marriage to Evelyn Riviere ended with his death in 1945. Her paper, ‘The bereaved wife’ (1945), which was written about women who had lost their partners in the Second World War, reflects some of her own feelings at his death. She speaks in moving detail of the strain that such a catastrophe imposes, not only on the wife herself, but on her relationship to her children. She ends by reminding the reader that every woman was once a child, and that what every human being seeks to find again in life are the figures of the mother and father in the forms in which they have been ‘indelibly preserved in the depths of the mind.’

Reflecting on the arts

A highly cultured woman, Riviere was interested in literature, art and the theatre. One of her last papers was ‘The unconscious phantasy of an inner world reflected in examples from literature’ (1952), in which she seeks to convey with examples from literature the ideas of phantasies ‘we all unconsciously create of harbouring others inside ourselves.’ She also wrote ‘The inner world in Ibsen’s Master-Builder’ (1952), which continues the theme of the inner world in literature. Here it is the figures and forces in the more abnormal inner world in which the Master-Builder, not having mourned his losses nor repaired his inner world, acts out instead, in a catastrophic way, his competitive phantasies in relationship to the internal parents and the parents’ children.

Joan Riviere died in London in 1962, survived by her only daughter, Diana.

Athol Hughes, 2013

The British Psychoanalytical Society kindly granted permission to reproduce the photograph of Joan Riviere above.

Key publications

1936 Riviere, J. ‘A contribution to the analysis of the negative therapeutic reaction’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis.17: 304-320.

1929 Riviere, J. ‘Womanliness as a masquerade’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 10: 303-313.

1932 Riviere, J. ‘Jealousy as a mechanism of defence’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 13: 414-424.

1936 Riviere, J. ‘On the genesis of psychical conflict in earliest infancy’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 17: 395-422.

1945 Riviere, J. ‘The bereaved wife’. In Isaacs, S. (ed.) Fatherless Children. Pouskin.

1952 Riviere, J. ‘The unconscious phantasy of an inner world reflected in examples from literature’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 33: 160-172.

1952 Riviere, J. ‘The inner world in Ibsen’s Master-Builder’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 33: 173-180.