Freud’s Mistress By Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman ISBN# 9780399163074
Brought to you by OBS Reviewer Daniele
Minna Bernays is an overeducated woman with limited options. Fired yet again for speaking her mind, she finds herself out on the street and out of options. In 1895 Vienna, even though the city is aswirl with avant-garde artists and writers and revolutionary are still very few options for women besides marriage. And settling is not something Minna has ever done.
Out of desperation, Minna turns to her older sister, Martha, for help. But Martha has her own problems — six young children, a host of physical ailments, a household run with military precision, and an absent, overworked, disinterested husband who happens to be Sigmund Freud. Freud is a struggling professor, all but shunned by his peers and under attack for his theories, most of which center around sexual impulses, urges, and perversions. While Martha is shocked and repulsed by her husband’s “pornographic” work, Minna is fascinated.
Minna is everything Martha is not—intellectually curious, an avid reader, stunning. But while she and Freud embark on what is at first simply an intellectual courtship, something deeper is brewing beneath the surface, something Minna cannot escape. (Goodreads)
Freud’s Mistress is the fictionalized tale of the suspected real-life affair between Sigmund Freud and his sister-in-law Minna Bernays. Minna, an intelligent but unmarried woman, faces limited employment options – she could be a governess or companion – and finds herself in dire circumstances after she is fired without references one too many times. Not wanting to go home to her mother with whom she does not get along, she ventures to live with her older sister, Martha, and her family. She quickly settles into taking care of her six nephews and nieces since her sister is recovering from giving birth and is experiencing a slew of other ailments. She also finds herself in a renewed intellectual friendship with Freud. The story takes place in 1895 Vienna, and here we find Freud to be a young, ambitious man struggling for recognition and validation from his peers. Minna is fascinated with his proposed psychological theories, whereas Martha considers it all pornographic, and proves to be a muse of sorts for Freud, and their conversations soon turn to flirting then to an all-out affair. The first half of the book, which deals with their building desire for one another, does a good job of creating the tension, chemistry, and cat and mouse game they play. The remainder of the novel focuses on Minna’s guilt and the downward spiral that ultimately leads to the end of their affair.
It does drag a bit at times with too much repetition of Minna’s musings about guilt. None of the characters, including the children, are portrayed in the most flattering light. They all have their demons and ways of dealing with unhappiness and the trials of life. Martha languishes in bed while she self medicates herself with opium syrup (and is also quick to administer it to her rambunctious children). Minna ruminates nightly and hides her cigarettes and gin under her bed. Freud is distant, sequestering himself with his research and patients while he chain smokes cigars and uses cocaine. It is interesting to read, from the twenty-first century perspective, how common the drug use was and how it was viewed to be harmless. Freud, an unlikely romantic hero by anyone’s standards, is portrayed as brilliant, charismatic and charming when he wants to be, but always egotistical and self-serving. As avant-garde as his thinking was at the time, he seemed to live as a typical man of the era.
It is written in a breezy style, making it easy to read, but I have to wonder how true it is to period. For example, I doubt anyone would have said “it is what it is” in 1895. The authors do an excellent job of giving us a snapshot of late nineteenth century Vienna domestic life, and the descriptions of the locations, styles, and manners are engrossing. Freud’s theories are woven easily into the narrative, and it never reads like a biography. Ultimately, this is a story about the ramifications of actions and guilt and building a life based on your own perspective. Did Minna and Freud really have a sexual relationship? How long did it last since Minna lived with the Freud’s for forty years? Did Martha know of their clandestine behavior (it is hinted at the she did know by the end of the book)? We will probably never know.
I recommend this to those interested in turn of the century historical fiction and devotees of Freud.