Did Sigmund Freud have an affair with his wife Martha’s younger sister, Minna Bernays? The evidence is suggestive but not conclusive. The two were close, but whether they were lovers remains a subject for speculation and theorizing, and now fictionalizing, with “Freud’s Mistress” by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman.
This is Mack and Kaufman’s third collaboration, after two engaging romantic comedies, “Literacy and Longing in L.A.” and “A Version of the Truth.” This novel is altogether different, a rather bleak historical romance about an intelligent but essentially powerless young woman who embarks on an affair with her older sister’s husband. Readers have been down this road before, though never with Freud. In this imagined version of events, the Great Man reveals himself as merely a man on the make who tells Minna that his wife doesn’t understand him, that they haven’t had sex in ages, that it’s unhealthy to deny primitive sexual desires.
The authors note that not a lot is known about the real Minna Bernays. She was said to be quick-witted and sharp-tongued. After her fiance died of tuberculosis, she struggled to make her way in fin de siècle Vienna, a time and place in which an educated unmarried woman had few choices of employment. She worked as a governess, tutor, ladies companion. The story is told in the third person, from her point of view. As the novel opens, in 1895, Minna has just been fired from yet another miserable job. Her sister Martha, recovering from the birth of her latest child and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood, offers her a home in exchange for help caring for the six Freud children.
Martha is disturbed and repulsed by her husband’s theory that human behavior is linked to the sexual impulse. Minna, though, has always been fascinated by Freud’s work. The two have carried on an intellectual correspondence for years, exchanging views about literature and philosophy, as well as his ideas. Freud invites Minna to attend one of his lectures at the medical school. They take long walks through Vienna. He invites her into his study and they talk for hours. He tells her that he has learned to direct his “surplus libido” into his collection of antiquities. He introduces her to cocaine. One thing leads to another.
The goings on in the Freud household are a miniseries waiting to happen. Martha lies in bed, endlessly crocheting doilies and swigging Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup, an opium concoction she also uses to dose the children. Freud closets himself in his downstairs study, brooding about why his peers refuse to accept his theories, dabbing cocaine up his nose and smoking cigar after cigar. Minna wrestles with her conscience, lights another cigarette, and reaches for the bottle of gin hidden under her bed.
Martha may suspect what’s going on, but she never openly acknowledges it. She tries to throw Minna together with one of Freud’s unmarried colleagues, but the man’s complacent prosperity and lack of intellectual curiosity leave Minna cold. With Freud, however, there is not only the mental connection, there’s sex. “There here was no escaping the raw physicality of it,” Minna realizes. Trying to further understand her attraction to the self-centered Freud, a man who has no compunction about committing adultery with his wife’s sister, she tells herself, “Sometimes the heart is drawn to not only the light. Sometimes it’s drawn to dark ambiguities of character and brooding silences. And an acute understanding of some shared concept or secret.”
The authors do a good job of evoking the mood and the look of Vienna at the end of the 19th century. They briefly, and deftly, portray the intellectual ferment that surrounded Freud and his colleagues. Minna is a fully developed character with a full inner life. But there is something missing at the heart of the story. Freud, the novel’s raison d’etre, is little more than a cliché cad in this fictional incarnation.