The Housekeeper of a World-Shattering Theory

Jenny Diski

  • Martha Freud: A Biography by Katja Behling, translated by R.D.V. Glasgow
    Polity, 206 pp, £25.00, January 2006, ISBN 0 7456 3338 2

In the membership roll of the worshipful guild of enabling wives, the name of Martha Freud ranks with the greatest: Mrs Noah, Mrs Darwin, Mrs Marx, Mrs Joyce, Mrs Nabokov, Mrs Clinton, and their honorary fellows, Mr Woolf and Mr Cookson. Wives, of either sex, are what keep the universe orderly and quiet enough for the great to think their thoughts, complete their travels, write their books and change the world. Martha Freud was a paragon among wives. There is nothing more liberating from domestic drudgery and the guilt that comes of avoiding it than having a cleaning lady who loves cleaning, a child-carer who’s content with child-care, a homebody who wants nothing more than to be at home. And Martha Freud was all those things. Quite why she was those things is something that her husband might have been the very person to investigate, but Freud was nobody’s fool and knew when to leave well alone in the murkier regions of his personal life – especially that dark continent in his mind concerning women. Freud mentioned in passing in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss (to whom he wrote that no woman had ever replaced the male comrade in his life), that at the age of 34, after the birth of her sixth child in eight years, Martha was suffering from writer’s block. Impossible to imagine why. But like other mysteries about Martha’s life, this new biography does not (or perhaps cannot because some of the source material remains unavailable) elaborate on what she might have been trying to write. A shopping list, I expect. Unless it was that book about interesting new ways she had thought of for interpreting her dreams, which she worked on in those odd moments when the children weren’t down with chickenpox or needing their stockings mended.

History tells of Mrs Freud – the wife – as a devoted domestic, and there is little in Katja Behling’s biography to suggest we adjust our view of her. The big idea seems to be that we must value her contribution to the development of psychoanalysis as the provider of a peaceful home life for its founder. The sine qua non of radical thought is someone else changing the baby’s nappy. In his foreword to the book, Anton Freud, a grandson, puts it with incontestable logic:

Would he have had the time and opportunity to write this foundational work if he had had, say, to take his daughter to her dancing classes and his son to his riding lessons twice a week? . . . His youngest daughter was born in 1895. When she cried in the night, was it Sigmund who got up to comfort her? . . . If Martha had been less efficient or unwilling to devote her life to her husband in this way, the flow of Sigmund’s early ideas would have dried to a trickle before they could converge into a great sea. Martha always saw to it that her husband’s energies were not squandered.

And if Freud had comforted his daughter when she cried in the night, would Anna have been so desperate for her father’s attention as to devote her life to publishing his papers and continuing his work? Apostles need more than ordinary unhappiness to fit them for their task.

Juliet Mitchell, in praise of the new biography, berates those who dismiss Martha Freud as a stereotypical Hausfrau rather than seeing in her ‘a highly ethical and decent human being’, though it isn’t at all clear to me that they are mutually exclusive descriptions. As to dismissing her, on the contrary, one wrings one’s hands and weeps over her, or would if she didn’t seem to have been perfectly content with her existence. In his biography of Freud, Peter Gay quotes Martha’s reply to a letter of condolence after Freud’s death that it was ‘a feeble consolation that in the 53 years of our marriage there was not a single angry word between us, and that I always tried as much as possible to remove the misère of everyday life from his path’. Like strange sex between consenting adults, there’s nothing to be said against contentment and a division of labour which both parties are happy about. We must read and wonder at the good fortune that each should have found the other. Which of us would not wish for a Martha of our own to take care of the misère in our daily life while we sit in our study or silently at the lunch table bubbling up enlightenment for the world? Then again, who among us would wish to be Martha, no matter how essential her biographer might claim her to be in the production of the grand idea? To be a muse, an inspiration, might, I suppose, have its attractions; but to be the housekeeper of a world-shattering theory isn’t quite the same.

There’s no point in pretending in the light of 53 years’ evidence that there was a great originator in Martha struggling to get out. But you can’t help wondering how it could be that she wanted only this of herself, a woman who at her marriage was neither thoughtless nor completely self-effacing. Martha was a voracious reader of John Stuart Mill, Dickens and Cervantes, though her husband-to-be warned her against the rude bits unsuitable for a woman in Don Quixote. She was interested in music and painting, and had no shortage of suitors. When Freud became obsessively suspicious of her brother (and the husband of Freud’s sister), Eli, who controlled the Bernays’s finances, he insisted, on pain of ending their relationship, that she break with him completely. She held her own, firmly reflected Freud’s ultimatum back at him, and maintained her relationship with Eli. She travelled to northern Germany to holiday with only her younger sister for company and had a wonderful time in spite of her fiancé’s suspiciously heavy-handed use of ironic exclamation marks: ‘Fancy, Lübeck! Should that be allowed? Two single girls travelling alone in North Germany! This is a revolt against the male prerogative!’ But as soon as they were married Freud forbade his devoutly Orthodox Jewish wife to light the sabbath candles. It wasn’t until the first Friday after her husband’s death that she lit them again. What do women want is one thing, but the real question is what made Martha run: run the household, the children, the travel arrangements, the servants, and with never a word of complaint except a mildly expressed bafflement at her husband’s choice of profession. ‘I must admit that if I did not realise how seriously my husband takes his treatments, I should think that psychoanalysis is a form of pornography.’

Marriage, they say, changes people, and it does look as if Martha Bernays might have had the makings of another woman – at any rate, another life – altogether. What this otherwise rather dutiful biography (the mirror of its subject, perhaps) does offer us is a glimpse (but sadly very little more) of the by no means uninteresting Bernays family and their oldest daughter, Martha, before she became the other Mrs Freud. Three of Martha’s six siblings died in infancy; her oldest brother, Isaac, was born with a severe hip disorder and walked on crutches; and the next brother, Eli, was not much liked by his mother. When Martha was six, her father, Berman Bernays, was imprisoned for fraudulent bankruptcy after some shady dealings on the stock market. Two years later, the family moved away from the public shame in Hamburg to Vienna, and Martha recalled hearing the ‘sizzling of her mother’s tears as they landed on the hot cooking stove’. She was teased at her new school for her German diction. Isaac died when Martha was 11, and seven years later Berman collapsed in the street, dying of ‘paralysis of the heart’ and leaving the family without an income. Berman’s brothers had to support them, and Eli took over his father’s job in order to help out. Not an uneventful childhood, not lacking in trauma to be lived through. There are all sorts of pain and difficulty there, yet Martha did not take to her bed and succumb to the vapours. There is not the slightest indication that she lost the use of her legs, or found herself unable to speak. And this is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that when her father died, her mother appointed as her temporary guardian none other than the father of Bertha Pappenheim, later better known as Anna O., who might have told her a thing or two about the proper way to react to family loss. Nor is there any indication that her positively neurotic lack of neurotic symptoms (unless you count obsessive compulsive caring for her husband’s welfare) struck the father of psychoanalysis as worth a paper or two.

What Sigmund and Martha had in common were families embroiled in shadowy financial scandals. Freud’s uncle was imprisoned for trading in counterfeit roubles, and persistent rumour had it that his father was implicated in the scam. The way both dealt with the discomfort of public shame and lived happily ever after together was by embracing a perfect 19th-century bourgeois existence, provided you don’t include Sigmund’s incessant thoughts about child sexuality, seduction theory, the Oedipus complex, penis envy and the death drive – or perhaps even if you do. Presumably it was precisely that exemplary bourgeois surface, the formal suits, the heavy, glossy furniture, the rigid table manners, ordered nursery and bustling regularity, that made it possible for those deeper, hardly thinkable thoughts to be had and developed into something that looked like a scientific theory. By polishing that surface and keeping the clocks ticking in unison, Martha was as essential to the development of Freudian thought as Dora or the Rat Man. It’s just that she didn’t have the time to put her feet up on the couch, and Sigmund never cared to wonder what all that polishing and timekeeping was about. Martha was not there in order to be understood; she was there so that he might learn to understand others.

Not that women weren’t interesting. Anna O. and Dora were fascinating. Minna, Martha’s younger sister, who lived with them, was someone to whom, when no serious man was around, Freud could talk about intellectual things. Who could have been more stimulating than Lou Andreas-Salomé, Marie Bonaparte, Hilda Doolittle, Helene Deutsch or Joan Riviere? But they were none of them his wife. It is the woman’s place, Freud said to his oldest daughter, Mathilde, to make man’s life more pleasant. Intellectual companionship was to be found elsewhere. The more intelligent young men look for a wife with ‘gentleness, cheerfulness, and the talent to make their life easier and more beautiful’. (Not Lou, then.) In 1936 he spoke to Marie Bonaparte of his married life: ‘It was really not a bad solution of the marriage problem, and she is still today tender, healthy and active.’ He expressed his relief to his son-in-law Max Halberstadt, ‘for the children who have turned out so well, and for the fact that she’ – Martha – ‘has neither been very abnormal nor very often ill’.

In fact, it was precisely Martha’s sturdy, if somewhat timekeeping and cleanliness-fixated nature that Freud found most attractive, according to Behling. She was the lodestone, the quintessence, the elixir to which his life’s work was ostensibly devoted. He was the Doctor and she was what the cured would look like. She was normal. Obviously, it would have been extremely trying had Anna or Dora or the Wolf Man been like her. But in his world of psychical distortion, Martha represented what no one who takes his works seriously could ever really believe in: the ordinary, undamaged specimen. According to Ernest Jones, ‘her personality was fully developed and well integrated: it would well deserve the psychoanalysts’ highest compliment of being “normal”.’ No problem for Martha coming to terms with her missing penis at the right stage of her development, no big deal about transferring her Oedipal desire for the mother to the father. She had adapted nicely to her castration, and although it meant her superego was a flimsy thing compared to that of a man (woman ‘shows less sense of justice than man, less inclination to submission to the great exigencies of life, is more often led in her decisions by tender or hostile feelings’), it served well enough for Freud’s purposes. Imagine if Freudian analysis had gone quite another way and the master had studied the normality he apparently had so close to home instead of its deformation. What was it that Emmeline (whose bossiness and self-absorption Freud hated) and Berman Bernays did so right? How could he not have been in a rage to know? But what intellectual innovator would want to give up interesting for ordinary, especially when ordinary, if left to its own devices and sublimation of desires, arranged such a comfortable life for him?

Behling suggests that Martha’s great value to Freud was her very existence, which prevented him from getting too depressed about the nature of human nature. He was able to see in her ‘someone who stood apart from what he learned about humankind in general’. She was not part of the ‘rabble’, as Oscar Pfister explained, of ‘good-for-nothing’ mankind. So not only did he not study her, he did not communicate any of his professional thoughts to her. ‘Freud did not wish to share the blackest depths of his knowledge with Martha, but rather to protect her from them,’ Behling writes. Or perhaps, more likely, to protect himself. During their engagement Freud was taken ‘greatly by surprise when she once admitted that at times she had to suppress bad or evil thoughts’.

Martha’s sunny nature, so very different apparently from human nature, was encouraged if not carefully tutored by her fiancé during their epic four-year engagement. Martha’s mother had set her face against the marriage of her daughter to an impoverished researcher, and they were reduced to writing letters and stealing occasional meetings. It seems to have been Freud’s single stab at passion and he went at it with all the will of an adored son. He must have found it alarming, because the heavy curtains of contentment came down as soon as the wedding was over. Before that, he raged with jealousy at the mention of other men, demanding, for example, that Martha stop calling her interesting painter cousin by his first name. ‘Dear Martha, how you have changed my life,’ he said in his first letter to her. And when they were engaged and he was battling against her mother for Martha he explained: ‘Marty, you cannot fight against it; no matter how much they love you I will not leave you to anyone, and no one deserves you; no one else’s love compares with mine.’ Clearly the time for the master’s self-analysis had not yet come, so he was free to wish to give his fiancée a fashionable gold snake bangle and write how sorry he was that in the circumstances she would have to settle for ‘a small silver snake’. He wanted her well turned out so it would ‘never occur to a soul that she could have married anyone but a prince’. But his letters also made other things clear. Martha’s nose and mouth, he told her, were shaped ‘more characteristically than beautifully, with an almost masculine expression, so unmaidenly in its decisiveness’. It was as if nature wanted to save her ‘from the danger of being merely beautiful’. Even so the romance was powerful: the two young lovers exchanged flowering almond branches, and Freud told her that his addiction to cigars was due to her absence: ‘Smoking is indispensable if one has nothing to kiss.’ But in describing his views on the state of marriage he explained that ‘despite all love and unity, the help each person had found in the other ceases. The husband looks again for friends, frequents an inn, finds general outside interests.’ Martha, who would apologise each time she screamed during her labour, had been warned.

After his death, Martha did not run wild, aside from lighting the shabbos candles, but sat on a chair on the half-landing between the first and second floors of the house in Maresfield Gardens and took to reading again, though only, she assured a correspondent in case she was accused of idleness, in the evenings. Life, she said, had ‘lost its sense and meaning’ without her husband, but she quite enjoyed receiving the grand visitors who came to the house to pay homage. Anna took over her father’s work and Martha suddenly began to take an interest in it. Her daughter found Martha far too inquisitive about the patients who came and went. Martha even expressed a view: ‘You’d be amazed what it costs, this child analysis!’

Freud blamed Martha for preventing him from gaining early recognition in the world of medical science. ‘I may here recount, looking back, that it was my fiancée’s fault if I did not become famous in those early years,’ he wrote in his self-portrait. His experiments with cocaine in the 1880s were taken up and elaborated by others. What the late Princess Margaret knew as ‘naughty salt’ was found to have a beneficial effect as a local anaesthetic, a use Freud inexplicably hadn’t thought of and which he had omitted to mention in his paper ‘On Coca’. It was an unexpected opportunity to visit Martha that had distracted him from fully exploiting the potential of his discovery, he claimed in old age, but was generous enough to excuse his wife since, as Behling puts it, ‘49 years of wedlock had compensated him for missing out on fame in his youth.’ But here’s a thought, an unconsidered key, perhaps, to understanding Martha. While Freud was making his experiments with cocaine, he sent several vials of it to his fiancée extolling its effect on vitality, with instructions on how to divide the doses and administer it. Martha wrote and thanked him, saying that although she didn’t think she needed it, she would take some as he suggested. She reported back to her fiancé that she found it helpful in moments of emotional strain. From time to time, Behling says, Martha ‘enhanced her sense of well-being with an invigorating pinch of cocaine’. For how long she continued to do this is unknown, but it does suggest an altogether different way of viewing the devoted, domestically driven Martha Freud, who for half a century went about her frantically busy daily round of cleaning, caring, tidying, managing and arranging all the minute details of her husband’s life with a fixed and unfaltering smile.