Review by Ann McDonald
In fin-de-siècle Vienna, it was not easy for a woman to find fulfillment both intellectually and sexually. But many believe that Minna Bernays was able to find both with one man—her brother-in-law, Sigmund Freud.
‘Freud’s Mistress’ takes place in 1895 in Vienna. It’s the story of the affair between Sigmund Freud and his wife’s sister, Minna Bernay. Affair? Love story? You can take your pick. When I took this book up first, I was not sure if I could be impartial in my reading, knowing Freud’s background but I must hand it to the authors, they carry this story off with great panache. The tale is a combination of fiction and fact and it’s woven together very well and it is told through the eyes of Minna.
She is well-educated, intelligent and bright but she is also without funds, her father having dropped dead suddenly, leaving the family penniless. Minna’s sister Martha, wife of Sigmund Freud, has six children and runs a household that is in constant chaos. It is to Martha that Minna writes for assistance when the job she has with a baroness, is terminated and she is without work again. Martha agrees to take her in. She has, in the past, engaged in discussion of Sigmund’s work through letters and has an academic relationship with him.
They do not know each other on a personal level and you watch that gradually change from the mental to the physical and it becomes clear that they are seducing each other, her feelings not without remorse and shame for wanting her sister’s husband so much but her needs outweigh the guilt. Sigmund of course, has none and won’t tolerate any God imposed tenets in his household. The story’s background is well researched and the houses, markets and inns are almost tangible and the plight of women without means will give you nightmares and make you thankful you’re in the here and now.
Freud is revealed in snapshots of verbal exchanges and the complexity of his mind you see in flashes of insight. At one juncture, Minna leaves and goes to work for two titled sisters and refuses to return any of Sigmund’s letters, declaring his love and inability to function without her. He threatens to come to where she works but she doesn’t believe him. He does, not only declaring himself but Martha’s need of her and the children. In the end, she succumbs. He takes her to Switzerland and the honeymoon for Minna begins.
They spend days there as husband and wife. The love scenes between them are passionate and tender with a warmth that enfolds you in their dreams. Like Minna, you want it to go on forever. She returns to Martha and the children and knows she will never leave them again. You must read it and enjoy the complexities of an affair so passionate, distant and all-consuming. She ended up staying with the family for over forty years. There is a wealth of information in this book and this short review does no justice to it all. Highly recommended.
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