MELANIE KLEIN, the subject of Phyllis Grosskurth's fascinating biography, was the dominant presence in the British psychoanalytic movement from the 1930s through the 1950s. Indeed, Klein and her followers are often simply referred to as the "English School" of psychoanalysis -- or, alternatively, the "Object-Relations School" -- although Klein herself was born in Vienna and didn't reach Britain until 1926, when she was over 40. Her work has continued to exercise a wide and profound influence on psychoanalytic thought since her death in 1960, and it would not be inaccurate to place her among a handful of Freud's most important disciples. She is also among the most controversial, to the point that many analysts would deny her the right even to be counted a Freudian.

Like her arch-rival, Freud's daughter Anna, she established her reputation as a child analyst, and her greatest writings remain her clinical accounts of the disturbed youngsters she treated. Phyllis Grosskurth reveals that three of her case histories were in fact based on her own children, an irregularity bound to shock modern psychoanalysts. Klein ingeniously substituted a technique of play analysis for the "talking cure" that Freud had fashioned for adults: children were given cars, ships, dolls and other artifacts with which to dramatize their fantasies, and Klein then proceeded to interpret their play in a manner analogous to the interpretation of dreams, slips and symptoms in the adult analysand.

The theoretical conceptions associated with Melanie Klein followed from the central role of child analysis in her therapeutic work. Broadly put, she carried to their logical conclusions the classic Freudian emphases on the primacy of childhood and the autonomy of the psychological. At the same time, she embraced Freud's increasing preoccupation, in his writings after the First World War, with the central place of aggression in psychic life.

In the first instance, she argued that the formative experiences in the history of the individual occurred in the very earliest years, even the earliest months, of infancy. Moreover, those experiences were not, as they appeared in the traditional Freudian account, merely biological or narcissistic, but entailed a sense of the child's psychological relation to objects -- either to whole objects, such as the mother, or to parts of objects, such as the mother's breast or the father's penis. The infant, in other words, developed an internal psychic world, peopled with things drawn from its experiences, but of course transformed and distorted by fantasy. Hence the theory of "object-relations," that internal psychic panorama against which the infant works out its sense of self.

Klein viewed the infant's dealings with these internal objects as dominated by aggression and hatred. Klein's infants entertain murderous feelings toward their parents, and they imagine ripping out the hated contents of their parents' bowels and even destroying them. Not surprisingly, these same infants are given to anxiety and depression, whose alleviation became the goal of Kleinian therapy. As a therapist, Klein repeatedly confronted her young patients with seemingly outlandish interpretations. "But that would be terrible if I really bit off Papa's penis," remonstrated one not untypical 4-year-old girl.

Yet for all their extravagance and brutality, these interventions seem to have been remarkably effective, and not only her former patients but also her enemies (of which there were many) concede that she was an ingenious and empathetic therapist. EVEN THIS brief account of her ideas should convey something of her attractions and liabilities. Her supporters rightly draw attention to her intellectual boldness, her willingness to take risks, and the firm and precise grounding of her thought in clinical material. Her detractors counter that her interpretations are arbitrary and speculative, that many of her ideas are obscure or confused, and that she characteristically passes over the more obvious influences on psychic life, particularly environmental influences, to chase after imaginary inner demons. Needless to say, these different intellectual responses to Klein are not unrelated to differing responses to her person. Grosskurth makes no effort to disguise the fact that she could be boorish, self-promoting, intolerant, and sometimes just plain tedious. But the biography ultimately persuades us that, for all her idiosyncrasies, she was also a woman of considerable warmth, generosity, and emotional depth.

Grosskurth's book is as much a history of the British Psycho-Analytic Society in its heyday as it is a biography of Klein. Its great strength lies in the author's ability to bring characters and controversies to life. Thus while the exposition of Klein's ideas is less than ideally lucid or economical (a fault attributable, I suspect, as much to Klein herself as to Grosskurth), the dramatis personae of her story veritably leap off the page. And what a cast she has to work with!

There are, to begin with, the egregious and self-absorbed members of Klein's family, many of whom seem to have been taken right out of a 17th-century Revenge Tragedy. They include a monstrously scheming mother, a lazy, solipsistic brother, and a feckless husband to whom she was married for financial reasons and from whom she separated in the 1920s. Two of her three children, despite the analytic attentions lavished on them, can only be described as out-and-out disasters: one was a homosexual who apparently committed suicide, and the other, her daughter Melitta, became Klein's most vicious and unscrupulous opponent during the squabbles that rocked the British Society in the 1940s. As Melanie sat in long-suffering silence, Melitta (herself a psychoanalyst) would seize the floor and rant on about "Mrs. Klein's" idiotic ideas. Out of these humiliations -- which at times verge on the comic -- came a deeper understanding of grief and depression, as well as the emotional resources to triumph over them.

The great "Controversial Discussions" of the 1940s form the heart of Grosskurth's narrative. She brilliantly recreates the motives of the participants, while deftly untangling the complex issues at stake. On one side stood Klein and her supporters from the English School, while on the other stood Anna Freud and the Viennese analysts, most of whom had escaped to England in the late '30s to avoid the Nazis. The principal theoretical dispute concerned whether the Kleinians were sufficiently orthodox to qualify as Freudians, while in practical terms the question was who would control the Society's Training Committee, and therewith the indoctrination of new recruits to the Freudian cause. IN A technical sense, Klein emerged victorious from these upheavals insofar as she avoided being forced out of the British Society. She also prevented Anna Freud or her allies (except Edward Glover) from finding sufficient excuse to secede from the Society. After the head-on clashes of the 1940s, the 1950s were characterized by an uneasy truce, although animosities remained as intense as ever. Ironically, the truce also appears to have brought with it a decline in the Society's intellectual vitality.

Viewed from a distance, the Controversial Discussions mark an inevitable moment in the deradicalization of psychoanalysis. Freudianism had arrived at that watershed in the history of all such movements when success effectively robs them of their creative energy. Anna Freud, one might say, was the movement's Karl Kautsky, the scholastic routineer who seeks to codify the original doctrine in order to ensure it intellectual respectability, just as Klein might be thought of as its Rosa Luxembourg, the disorderly romantic who is eager to recapture the movement's original spirit but who finds herself in a historically unpropitious situation. Unquestionably Klein believed that she was Freud's proper heir, the person who would restore to psychoanalysis its sense of intellectual adventure and excitement. But, in truth, while she may have shared something of Freud's genius, she lacked his capacity for discipline or his theoretical rigor. She remains, nonetheless, a powerful, if doomed, figure in the larger story of his heritage, and we are very much in Phyllis Grosskurth's debt for bringing her splendidly to life and for placing her so firmly against the rich canvas of her contemporaries.