Book: Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman (NEW: July 2013)
Review by Edie Jarolim
Fin de siècle Vienna was a time of blossoming for artists like Gustav Klimpt, known for his lush, erotic subject matter, and for such writers as Arthur Schnitzler, who wrote boldly about physical love. But no one in in the era is better known for exploring human sexuality than Sigmund Freud, who traced most psychological problems back to early childhood imaginings on the topic.
It’s no stretch, then, to think a novel based on Freud’s life might involve sex – even Freud’s own sex life. There had been speculation for years among scholars about whether Freud had an affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays. Freud traveled openly with Minna, whose company he enjoyed; she was a smart and witty woman. And, in 2006, one researcher believed he found the smoking gun, as it were (sorry — it’s hard to avoid Freudianisms): He discovered that Freud signed the register of a Swiss hotel that he and Minna checked into as “Dr. Sigm. Freud u Frau” – Dr. and Mrs. Freud.
This discovery was the inspiration for the book Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman.
I was very excited to learn about it. I have a strong personal interest in books set in Freud’s Vienna. Siegmund Kornmehl, my great uncle on my mother’s side, was Sigmund Freud’s butcher — his shop is now part of Vienna’s Freud Museum – and I’m researching the day-to-day details of my family history. It’s not hard to find books set in the era, including fiction with Freud as a character: Irvin D. Yalom’s: When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession, for example, and Frank Tallis’s Max Liebermann Mysteries. But such books tend, understandably, to focus on Freud’s intellectual life rather than his domestic arrangements. I figured that Freud’s Mistress would, by definition, focus on the women of the Freud household. So – full disclosure – I requested a review copy.
The press release that accompanied the book is breathless:
Inspired by one of the most controversial and consequential love affairs in modern history, bestselling authors Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman have fashioned a page-turning novel of passion and betrayal – not only between a husband and wife, but also between sisters. Drawing on recently discovered documents and deep research into the flamboyant, pulsating world of fin-de-siecle Vienna, the authors combine known facts with compelling fiction to tell the story of Sigmund Freud’s intimate relationship with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, who lived with him and his wife Martha, for more than 40 years.
But, okay, though I am used to more scholarly, less hyperbolic approaches to historical fiction, I decided to accept Freud’s Mistress on its own terms – as a fun diversion with an interesting, authentic setting. I was also willing to suspend disbelief on the book’s central premise, that Freud and his sister-in-law had an affair (but see Freud’s Butcher, Did Freud Have Sex With His Sister In Law? for an analysis of this question) and to grant that the sequence of many events had been rearranged to fit the story.
But I wasn’t expecting to find some errors in background that are real howlers. At one point, for example, Minna helps her mother – an Orthodox Jew – prepare a dinner that includes roast chicken with liver and “sweet and sour green beans drenched in butter nestled next to chunky sour-cream potatoes.” Anyone with even a basic knowledge of Judaism knows it’s forbidden to mix milk (butter, sour cream) with meat (chicken and liver).
A larger issue for me is that book’s sensibility seems anachronistically modern – and not very anchored in Austria.
Take the scene where Freud gives Minna cocaine. There’s no question that Freud used the drug; he was a big proponent of it for a time, though he ultimately renounced it. (It’s a sad testament to the addictive properties of nicotine that Freud was able to kick his cocaine habit but was never able to give up cigars.) But even aside from the fact that Freud had already disavowed the use of cocaine by the time that Minna moved in with his family (1896), Freud used it for its supposed health benefits and ability to allow him to work more effectively – not as a recreational drug or a tool of seduction.
The book’s description of the complementary use of opiates by Freud’s wife, Martha — who also doses her children with them – is interesting. Martha is a big fan of “Mother Baily’s Quieting Syrup,” described as “one of the most popular laudanum pain relievers.” Given the British ties to the Chinese opium trade, it’s possible that these products were imported to Vienna under their original names – but that would have been a detail I’d have been interested in learning. And the examples that the authors give for those known for using the drug are all English-speaking literary figures: “Lord Byron, Keats, Edgar Allen Poem, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Elizabeth Barrett Browning” (p. 87). Were there no famous Viennese – or even German – users of laudanum? Minna later refers to Heathcliff, from Wuthering Heights — an English book published nearly 50 years earlier and unlikely to have been read in Austria.
Inexplicably, although they spent three years researching the book, Mack and Kaufman didn’t visit Vienna, instead going to the Freud Museum London, Freud’s home only in the last year of his life (though his office was re-created there). Perhaps that helps explain the frame of reference.
Finally, there’s the character of Freud. He is less a fully-fleshed man with a personality of his own than a foil to Minna — and a bit of a cad. He also seems to exist in part to present his nascent theories of psychoanalysis.
That said, his ideas are presented in a clear, interesting way and the book captures one important aspect of Freud’s character that makes his treatment of Minna seem plausible: That he is a man of deep, if sometimes fleeting, enthusiasms. All in all, this book is unlikely to reveal much that is new to anyone who has read a lot about Freud’s Vienna — and about Freud. But I found myself getting caught up in the story of an independent woman who is unwilling to settle for a marriage for the sake of convention– and who has the misfortune of having to compare all the men she meets with the most interesting guy in town, who happens to be married to her sister.
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