- A Young Girl’s Diary edited by Daniel Gunn and Patrick Guyomard
189 pp, £12.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 04 440273 2
The history of psychoanalysis is full of skeletons. This particular one has tumbled out of its cupboard several times before but is none the worse for that. It is still an enjoyable read, whatever else it may be, and every bit as much of an atmospheric period piece as Gwen Raverat’s famous reminiscences of more or less the same time – even if no two atmospheres could be more different than draughty Cambridge and richly-upholstered Vienna on either side of the turn of the century.
A Young Girl’s Diary was first published in Vienna in 1919 by Hermine von Hug-Hellmuth, a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. It was supposed to be what it says it is: an original document, the diary of a Viennese schoolgirl from the age of 11 to the age of 14. Hug-Hellmuth claimed that the author had been her pupil and had given it to her just before the outbreak of the First World War. She – the diarist – was about twenty-one then. Not long afterwards, she went as a nurse to the Serbian front, where she died or, in Hug-Hellmuth’s words, ‘fell victim to the overwhelming onrush of events’.
In 1915 Hug-Hellmuth showed the diary to Freud. He was impressed and enchanted by the girl’s artless account of her feelings in puberty, and in a letter to Hug-Hellmuth he said: ‘It is your duty, I think, to publish the diary. My readers will be grateful to you for it.’ Hug-Hellmuth published it in 1919, using Freud’s letter in her introduction as a sort of affidavit. There were two further German editions, in 1921 and 1922, and then no more: from the very start doubts had been cast on the Diary’s authenticity.
Hug-Hellmuth’s own life reads more like nature imitating art – in this case one of those steamy doom-laden novellas by Schnitzler. She was born in 1871, the daughter of Hugo Ritter Hug von Hugenstein, a staff officer at the Ministry of War. Both she and her elder sister Antonie trained as teachers – a career for well-bred girls much in evidence in the Diary. As soon as women were admitted to the university, Hermine enrolled and took a doctorate in physics. Then she went back to school teaching, and from there into psychoanalysis. She was the first practitioner to analyse children, preceding Anna Freud and Melanie Klein. She never married and neither did Antonie, although Antonie had a baby. The sisters shared a flat and the upbringing of the little boy. ‘The child,’ say the editors of the present edition of the Diary, ‘seems to have become a sort of emotional pawn in the relation between his mother and his aunt, but also an object of observation and even of experimentation.’ His mother died in 1915, leaving instructions that he was not to remain with his aunt. He was sent to live in the country, but after two years he begged to return to Hermine: his wish was granted. Poor Rolf: he was a mess. He borrowed money, stole, was expelled from school, tried to commit suicide, was sent to an institution. In 1924, when he was 18, he broke into Hug-Hellmuth’s flat with the intention, he said, of robbing her. She screamed, and he strangled her. ‘The impact on the analytic community was immense.’
This may have been one of the reasons for what the present editors call ‘a conspiracy of silence’ after the third German edition of the Diary. Their introduction is indignant and defensive of Hug-Hellmuth: they think that she was wronged by the ‘prevailing hypothesis’ that the Diary was a fake: ‘Why,’ they ask, ‘had this publication sparked off certain passions, swiftly becoming virtually uncontrollable, which led people to see falsification of names and outright deception in place of simple anonymity?’ A different set of passions was sparked off when Stanley Unwin published the Diary in an English translation in 1921. ‘Filth, my dear sir, filth,’ pronounced Sir Archibald Bodkin, the Director of Public Prosecutions; and he insisted on the excision of ‘objectionable passages’ and that booksellers be allowed to sell the Diary only to customers with a bona fide professional interest. It seems odd that the editors, Daniel Gunn and Patrick Guyomard, should get their knickers in such a twist about Sir Archibald when forty years later Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the Senior Treasury Counsel against Lady Chatterley, was still getting his in a twist about the possible evil effects of the book on his wife and servants.
Compared with Hug-Hellmuth’s own biography, A Young Girl’s Diary is tame as tame can be. Grete Lainer – a pseudonym, in accordance with the diarist’s request to Hug-Hellmuth – is the daughter of an advocate. Soon after the start of the diary he is appointed an appeal court judge, to his daughter’s great delight. Grete lives among all the props of upper middle-class childhood: music lessons, skating, tennis, birthday parties, Christmas with an orgy of expensive presents for the children and feverishly home-made gifts for the parents. Once when there isn’t time to make a present for Frau Lainer’s birthday, the children give her ‘a wonderful lamp for her bed table, the switch is a bunch of grapes and the base is made of brass.’ The bric-à-brac is amazing, and so are the clothes and the trimmings, especially after Herr Lainer is ennobled and coronets are embroidered on all the handkerchiefs and much else: ‘Hella gave me a reticule with my monogram and the coronet as well. Oswald has given Dora and me small paperweights and Papa a big one, all bronze groups.’
Holidays are spent in mountain resorts or with friends on their estates, meeting their brothers and sisters and cousins. School is a passionate pursuit: Grete’s parents are ambitious for her to do well, but so is she. She sits next to her best friend Hella (who has a coronet from the start), and other girls are admitted to or banished from their circle according to their deserts, which vary from day to day. But when a girl is ostracised by the whole form, Grete – and especially Hella, who is naturally more courageous because she is an officer’s daughter – rally to the victim’s defence. Crushes on masters and mistresses are intense and melodramatic; Machiavellian manoeuvres are deployed to get attention and approval from one’s idol; rebuffs leave bleeding wounds; when Fraulein Professor M. leaves to get married, Grete cries for days. Compared with all this, flirtations with boys are emotionally quite undemanding, though very important just the same for reasons of prestige.
Grete comes across as a lively, intelligent, loyal, delightful child. Even her snobbery, her passionately-held beliefs about what constitutes ‘common’ behaviour, and her priggishness, are endearing. What upset a lot of contemporary readers of the Diary is that she thinks such a lot about sex. It looms in the future, a terrifying threat, getting closer all the time, and no adult will speak about it. The children enlighten one another as best they can. Two things are called ‘It’: one is having a period, a disgusting, degrading experience which happens at 14. The other ‘It’ is intercourse, even more frightening and to be avoided at all costs. Of course one must fall in love and get engaged, otherwise one will be seen to be a failure, but one should never marry – unless one can arrange a marriage contract which excludes ‘It’. ‘It’ is unbearably painful for a woman, but she can’t refuse her husband. If you want a baby, ‘It’ has to be done every single night: if you miss one, no baby. Jews take off all their clothes to do ‘It’; this is because they are cruel; and they are cruel because Jewish little boys have a terribly painful operation. All officers have venereal disease, ‘and that is really what makes them so frightfully interesting ... There is only one hope for a man with venereal disease, and that is that a young girl should give herself to a man suffering from it (Mlle often said that too), then she gets the disease and he is cured.’ It becomes impossible to look at a young married couple, and previously harmless words, like ‘relationship’, ‘tired’ and ‘bitch’ are full of ambiguity and must be avoided, for fear of shame, or giggles, or both.
Seeing a flasher on the tram is deeply disturbing: (‘That is the original sin, and that is the sin which Adam and Eve committed. Before I had always believed that the original sin was something quite different.’) But the most sensational experience comes when the maid takes Grete and her sister to her room to show them a couple making love in a window across the street. (Naked: the man must be a Jew.)
This is the passage that stuck in Sir Archibald’s gullet, and it might stick in the reader’s, though for different reasons. Flashers are within anyone’s experience, but a maid as reckless as Resi is not so easy to come by, and from the point of view of credibility, she could be the straw that breaks the Diary’s back. The trouble is that Grete’s family situation is just too perfect, with every ingredient necessary for an exemplary history of adolescent development. Her elder brother Oswald is a bad hat who is expelled from school either because of a ‘married woman’, or perhaps because he spends so much time in the lavatory (what does he do there?). Her sister Dora is two years her senior, clever, musical, pretty, supercilious towards Grete and with admirers who send her bouquets: the perfect object for sibling jealousy. Their mother suffers from a gynecological complaint and dies of it just before Grete’s 14th birthday: of course it must have been brought on by ‘It’ – which casts a disturbing light on Grete’s father, who habitually calls her his ‘little witch’. Finally there is Hella, the perfect confidante, older (by six vital months which bring her in range of the first ‘It’), wiser and braver. Her daily reported dialogue with Grete is so invariably to the point, so lively, so economical, so much more amusing than a solitary diarist’s outpourings could ever be, that she too is hard to swallow.
The whole Diary is simply too entertaining, too artfully put together to seem quite real. There is never a dull moment, never a trite phrase, no episode goes on for too long. It is full of delicious ironies: passionately held opinions are changed a few pages later, cast-iron resolutions broken within days of being made. Girlhood, puberty, and purity were favourite subjects for art at the turn of the century, especially in Central and Northern Europe. Munch’s anguished little nude Puberty on the dust-cover is an example. Nymphets invaded literature, and not just serious literature: they swarmed all over pulp fiction, often appearing as young countesses in ‘housemaids’ novels’. They also had a whole genre written for as well as about them: Backfischliteratur – teenage fiction. This often comes in the form of breathless diaries or letters. Except for the fact that it is more explicit, with its subtext hanging out, the Diary could well come from this stable. On the other hand, if you wanted to argue for its authenticity, you could say that Grete must have been steeped in this kind of stuff and aimed, if only subconsciously, to reproduce it.
There was also a tradition of faintly scabrous anonymity. The most famous example was a work called Josefine Mutzenbacher, the autobiography of a Viennese prostitute. The heroine begins her career as a very small girl, and the early part of the book has one thing in common with the Diary: namely, a strong sense of milieu – tenement in this case, not upper bourgeois. Josefine Mutzenbacher is about as superior to run-of-the-mill porn as L’Histoire d’O, and so naturally people speculated as to who might be the author. On the whole, it was decided that it was probably Felix Salten, who wrote a lot of middlebrow novels as well as the best-seller Bambi. On internal evidence one would guess that the Diary too was the work of some experienced purveyor of fiction to the middle classes.