The season for suicides had begun.
The young woman sat at the writing desk by the window and dipped her pen into black ink. It scratched across the paper like a raven’s claw. Outside, the sky was ashen gray. Since early November, the air had been bitter cold, and patches of ice had spread out over the breadth of the Danube. Soon, the river would be frozen solid until spring. Just the other week, she had read in the Salonblatt about a wealthy young aristocrat, dressed in bridal gown and veil, who jumped her steed off Reich’s Bridge. The beautiful filly sank like a stone, and the woman’s body washed up on the shore, shrouded in white satin.
She never thought it would come to this, but now, here she was, at her sister’s mercy, asking for help. She finished the letter at dawn, just as the bells of St Stephens rang out across the city. She sealed the envelope and placed it in the letter box outside the front door. She would remember this day. It was the beginning.
Two days earlier
The sky was raining ice, but the woman hurrying down the boulevard wore no coat or hat. She was carrying a bundle wrapped in stiff coarse blankets, and the heavy load hampered her gait, causing her to favor one leg, then the other. Strands, of long, wet hair lashed across her mouth and eyelids, and every few minutes she would pause, shifting the weight of her bundle onto one arm and hip, and exposing her free hand to brush the sleet off her face.
She crossed the Ringestrasse--the broad, tree-lined avenue that circled Vienna -- then passed a row of massive apartment buildings, their exteriors casting glazed shadows on the cobblestones. The storm was getting worse, a constant downpour. Blinded by the wet, she continued on, splashing through puddles in her good leather boots, crossing Schwarzenplatz Square, the invisible boundary between the aristocracy and everyone else. A few hundred yards away, a row of opulent homes blazed with lights.
Earlier, in her haste to leave, she couldn’t be bothered to run upstairs to get her woolen overcoat and gloves and now she sorely regretted this rash decision. She was chilled to the bone. “Idiot,” she thought. “My boots are ruined.”
She slowed her pace and swept through the ornamental iron gates of the Baroness’ residence, heading around back to the servant’s entrance. She rang the night bell and then knocked loudly, cursing softly and swaying with impatience. Open the damn door, she thought. There was a dull, aching pain in her back as a gust of icy wind drove her back on her heels. She shifted the load over her shoulder, her fingers throbbing as she pounded on the door.
When the night maid finally appeared, Minna brushed past her in a fury. Took bloody long enough, she thought, but murmured a perfunctory “good evening” and descended a dimly-lit stairway to the basement kitchen. She carefully placed her bundle on a cot near “The Beast,” the enormous black furnace by the scullery. A frail, drowsy child emerged from the blankets and sat there silently as Minna pushed the cot closer to the furnace, slid the thin mattress back on its frame and settled the child beneath a feeble candle flickering on a wooden shelf.
“Fraulein Bernays, you’re wanted upstairs. The mistress has been ringing for over an hour,” the night maid said, adjusting her starched white cap. She glanced across the room at the kitchen maid with a faint smile.
“Everyone suffers when you run about...” the kitchen maid added, sighing heavily as she bent over and wiped a mud print from the stairs.
“I told the Mistress you went for a walk but she wasn’t having any of it, said you must have gone somewhere...”
“If you must know, we’ve been out gargling gin. Haven’t we, Flora?”
“Yes, Fraulein,” Flora said, with a weak smile. “And then we went to the doctor.”
“The child’s delirious,” Minna said, “Cover up dear, it’s freezing in here.”
There was a draft coming from somewhere that made her long for dry clothes and her head was pounding. She put her hand in her skirt pocket and fingered the brown paper parcel of medicine. Thank God—still there.
Earlier that day Minna had discovered Flora in a terrible state, attempting to do her chores but coughing so hard, it brought her to her knees. Several times, Minna had dunked the pathetic little thing, wailing and hiccupping, in a cold bath to break the fever but nothing seemed to work. The child was doomed, her cheeks shining with fever, the sweating sickness getting worse and worse. Minna could stand it no longer. She bundled her up, and, without a word to anyone, set out to take the child to the doctor.
“What if he won’t see us,” Flora had asked, struggling for breath, as Minna rang the bell at the physician’s office.
“He’ll see you,” she answered with an air of conviction she did not feel. “You’re the Baroness’s charge and very important.”
An elderly gentleman appeared in the doorway, blotting his mustache with a linen napkin. Minna could see a woman sitting at the dining table across the room and there was an aroma of boiled beef and wine.
“Herr Doctor, my employer, the Baroness Wolff, wishes immediate treatment for this child. She is most concerned.”
The doctor hesitated a moment as Minna pushed by him, launching into a litany of the child’s ailments —fever, coughing, nausea, loss of appetite. There was little reason to doubt her authority. Even without her overcoat, and despite the muck on her clothes, she was an elegant woman—willowy with straight back, smooth skin and perfect diction. In addition, she was a most convincing liar.
“Cholera, typhoid, diphtheria?” Minna had asked, as the doctor led her to his offices in the back.
“Unspecified infection...” he concluded after an examination. “Bed rest for at least a month....linens changed twice a week... lozenges for the sore throat and Bayer’s Heroin for her cough...”
Minna listened, nodding her head in agreement, all the while knowing what the doctor advised would be impossible to carry out in this household. In any event, how in heavens name did Minna ever think she could get away with this? Her days, her evenings, even her Sundays belonged to the Baroness. She was expected to serve at the pleasure of her employer and tardiness often meant instant dismissal.
Minna thought of Herr Doctor’s orders as laid her hand on Flora’s clammy forehead.
“Don’t leave me,” the child said, slightly bewildered, her voice, hoarse and strained. She was ten, but looked six and she clutched Minna’s skirt, sensing a departure. Minna gave Flora two spoonfuls of the sticky, sweet-smelling syrup and whispered something in her ear. The child lay back down and turned her head to the wall.
All eyes were on Minna as she pinned a few damp wisps of hair into her small bun, pointedly wiped the heels of her boots with a rag and left the kitchen with no comment. She climbed back up the narrow stairwell, making her way through the marble-floored entrance hall, and then hurried down a vaulted corridor lit by a series of imported electric lights. She stopped briefly just outside the crimson drawing room and caught her breath, then knocked softly.
“You may enter,” a voice called. .
The Baronesses’ inner-sanctum looked like the kind of room that no one lived in. Rich, heavy damask chairs and sofas, stained-glass shades, Persian carpets and a collection of chinoisserie that included pug dogs, poodles and exotic birds. There was a bowl of lilies on an inlaid side table, and, in the corner, near the window, a writing desk with a silver tray filled with tea cakes and snow-white sandwiches. Outwardly, Minna was calm, but her face was flushed and her heart racing, as if she had just broken a valuable vase. Also, the smell of the Baronesses tea cakes reminded her she had not eaten a morsel the entire day.
“Good evening, Baroness.”
“The others are talking about you,” the young woman replied abruptly, her voice pinched and refined. She was sitting in her fine dress and examining Minna with a gaze that could sear the skin off a rabbit. “Would you like to hear what they’re saying? They talk about your peculiarities — your constant reading and your walking about and such. Things I put up with at great inconvenience to myself. Things I’ve managed to ignore. You’re late. Where have you been?”
“I went to the chemist. Flora is sick.” Minna said.
“You think I haven’t noticed,” she responded, beckoning her to sit down across from her. Minna hesitated. Her skirt was still damp and would leave a mark on the fabric. She sat gingerly on the edge, extricating a silk pillow and pushing it aside.
“I’m not a monster after all. I myself told Cook last week to give the little creature daily doses of camphor.”
That would have been the first decent thing the Baroness had ever done for her, Minna thought. The unfortunate Flora had been hired from the country to work as one of the general servants in the large Baroque residence. Even upon her arrival, the little girl was thin and pale, too fragile for this kind of employment. She had straw-colored hair, eyes the color of sherry and spent the better part of her day in the basement kitchen, choking on thick black clouds of fumes and smoke. Her duties ran from cleaning the boiler and emptying the fire places to scraping pots and cleaning privies. At night, Minna had frequently seen her crying herself to sleep.
“The camphor’s been useless. She needed...”
The Baroness held up her finger in warning, cutting Minna off. “I’ll decide when my staff needs medication. And by the way, when I had my sore throat last week, I didn’t notice you running to the chemist for me.”
There was a tense pause as the Baroness adjusted the fringed pillows on her empire sofa. “I must say, I’ve never had much luck with you people. I rarely hire anyone from the Second District, but you came so highly recommended...”
Minna did not contradict her. She had never lived in the Second District, Leopoldstadt, where most of Vienna’s middle-class Jews resided, but she had often felt the sting of anti-semitism. When she was a child, she sometimes took revenge upon school children’s slurs, one time hitting a boy so hard, she bloodied his nose. But as she grew older, she found it was something best to ignore, although she still felt a chill at the nape of her neck every time she encountered it.
“Rest assured, my only concern is for the child,” Minna said, in a low, firm voice.
“Your concern should be for your employment. You’re a lady’s companion. And as far as I can tell, you haven’t had any medical training.”
“But I have. I was employed by a doctor in Ingolstadt.”
“What’s his name?” The Baroness asked, skeptically.
“Herr Dr. Frankenstein,” Minna shot back with authority, as though her answer wasn’t completely preposterous.
The Baroness stared at Minna for a moment and then smiled slyly, stood up and walked to the fireplace, gathering her basket of needlework. “Now Minna,” she continued, in a soft tone of voice, “you must apologize so we can carry on.”
“I apologize.” she said promptly, although the sentiment wasn’t there.
“I accept your apology,” the woman said, “In any event, the girl has never been quite right. Weak and consumptive.”
The Baroness gazed into the mirror over the mantle and touched her elaborately upswept hair.
“What do you think of this hairstyle? It’s the same as Clara’s. She wore it to the Imperial Palace last week.”
“It suits you,” Minna replied, staring at the ridiculous bouffant pompadour and wondering if anyone on the face of the earth would be able to keep a straight face looking at it.
“Good then, I’ll keep it for now,” she said with a dismissive wave, settling herself back on the sofa with her needlework on her lap.
The light was fading and shadows darkened the room. Faint sounds of horses’ hoofs and carriage wheels on cobblestones drifted through the heavy, swaged draperies and an occasional servant’s voice echoed through the halls. The Baroness’ smooth, white hands moved quickly as she concentrated on the pastoral scene she was embroidering on linen. Pale verdant greens, lush lavender sky and a shepherd tending his flock. .
Afterwards, Minna climbed the two sets of stairs to her room, immediately pulling off her wet muslin skirt, flannel petticoat, woolen stockings and unbuttoning the twenty buttons of her white cotton shirt. She was beginning to smell like wet dog. The room was dark, matching her mood — the walls an unhealthy shade of arsenic green. She put on her nightdress and carried a candle to the dressing table, her shadow following her. Minna leaned her head back and began brushing her thick auburn hair, gathering it back with combs. In her youth, she had been conscious of the wealth of her hair and her tall, slim figure. But over the years, vanity had disappeared. The fine planes of her face and neck were still in evidence, but even in the candle light, she could see delicate lines around her eyes.
She never imagined that at this point in her life, at almost thirty years old, she would be standing by silently while a young woman, barely her age, scolded her and nearly let a poor child die like a dog. Minna would have been married by now, like her sister, Martha, if life had turned out differently, if her father hadn’t lost his money and dropped dead on the street, if her fiancé hadn’t died. If, if, if.
There was no sense going back over it. She had been on her own for years. No one else in the family could support her — Martha had a growing family, her brother, Eli, had married and moved away so she fell back on the only options remaining to her — lady’s companion or governess. She had to make her own way in this world and it looked like she would be moving on again soon.
She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, hugging her body and pressing her fingers into her upper arms. She was tired. And her neck hurt. She drifted over to the balcony and looked out the window to the north.
A shot of gin would be nice, she thought, but she’d settle for a cigarette. She lit one of the thin, Turkish smokes she kept in her bottom dresser drawer. The downpour had subsided into a slate-colored gloom and she inhaled deeply.
Often, late at night, when her duties were done, Minna would read until the candle drowned in a pool of fat. A hefty chunk of her wages went for books, but not the Silver Fork novels about maids in the attic and randy masters with roaming eyes. And not the eternally boring memoirs, the “remember me” books that she’d save until her eye sight was gone. No, she preferred the big books, wading through Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, which was better than Edward Freeman’s History of the Norman Conquest, but not especially enlightening. She struggled with turgid passages from Darwin’s Origin of the Species and works by Heraclites and Parmenides — the heart of which wrestled with questions of existence.
And then there was Aristotle, who she threw aside after discovering that he considered women one of nature’s deformities — an unfinished man. She sold that volume with no regrets. Plato wasn’t much better on the subject, insisting that women were less competent than men. Then again, she couldn’t dismiss every philosopher simply because of their narrow-minded convictions. After all, Nietzsche, whom she adored, viewed women as merely possessions...a property pre-destined for service. And Rousseau believed a woman’s role was primarily to pleasure men. It was dispiriting actually.
But there was nothing to aggravate her in literature. In fact, it was the perfect antidote for those feelings of boredom, dread and loneliness. She chose Shakespeare’s Richard the Third and Henry the Sixth (Part Two—not Part One which was more of a historical treatise and one of Shakespeare’s weakest dramas, in her opinion.) For sheer entertainment it was Mary Shelley’s gothic thriller, Frankenstein, which she’d consumed in one sitting. And then there was that avant-garde Viennese author named Schnitzler, who gave up his medical practice to write plays about aristocratic heroes and their adulterous affairs. No irony, no moralizing, just a frank, unemotional study of the phenomenon of passion. She’d never read anything quite like it. An acquired taste, this Schnitzler — like olives or caviar or German expressionism.
But this was not a night to lose oneself in gin, tobacco and bibliomania.
She pulled on her boots under her nightclothes, not bothering to fasten the tedious number of buttons, and made her way back down to Flora’s claustrophobic little nook. The child was curled up on the cot, clutching her rag doll.
Normally she would sit with her and tell her stories but, at the moment, Flora was in no mood. She wanted what any child her age would want. She wanted her mother and she wanted to go home. Minna sat down next to her and held her in her arms as Flora snuggled in, laying her cheek against her chest. She gently stroked her hair and hummed softly until she saw Flora’s eyelids flutter and then close. Minna breathed a sigh of relief when the child finally fell asleep.
The next morning, the Baroness received a note from her doctor inquiring as to the child’s health and explaining that “after-hours” calls are charged at a premium.
“You’re dismissed,” the baroness had said with a petulant frown, looking away as she informed her that all wages would be garnished. The usual nastiness associated with an infuriated employer and an unrepentant employee wasn’t there. Minna stood justly accused. No vehement protestations. There would be no point. Especially in light of what Minna intended to do next.
An hour or so later, after the Baroness left for the day, Minna packed up her bags and left them by the servant’s entrance. Then she informed the staff that she and Flora had been “let go,” and took the bewildered child to the Wein Westbahnhof Station. She was sending Flora home.
Flora was from a small village outside of Linz, where the winters were long and the people worked at hardscrabble jobs in iron foundries, mines or factories. There was, in Flora’s life, privation and tragedy — a sister died, diphtheria or the flu — a brother was sent to prison and no one knew about the father, a general laborer who wasn’t around. But Flora clearly adored her mother, “She has golden hair,” she told Minna one night, “like a fairy.”
Minna wrapped her arms around the girl’s small body and they huddled on the platform half-frozen, watching travelers congregate at the gate — women with embroidered fur-collared jackets and fancy traveling valises, children with curled hair and warm overcoats. The girl seemed calm now, relieved.
When the train pulled up, Minna and Flora walked past the uniformed porters who were standing by private first-class cars with elaborate sitting rooms and electric lights. She helped the child into the third class cabin, settling her on a hard wooden bench between two matrons, one of whom had a sleeping baby on her lap.
“Don’t come back,” she had wanted to say, as she brushed Flora’s warm cheek with a kiss, and pressed a few kronen in the matron’s hand, getting her assurance that she would see the child home. But she knew Flora would be sent off somewhere else in a few months. That was her fate. Minna felt a visceral charge of longing and regret. She would have liked, at the very least, to have felt she was setting Flora free.
Minna watched the train lumber away and stood on the empty platform alone as the severity of her situation finally hit her. There would be no recommendation from the Baroness, that was certain. Her money was woefully depleted, and she had no hope for future employment. She hailed an omnibus and rode along the jumbled, cobble-stoned streets, trying to ignore the panic that was building up inside of her. She was beginning to think that finding the perfect position was never going to happen. It was exhausting trying to sustain the feeling that she was just one step away from happiness.
She checked into a modest pension near the Danube, but sleep did not come easily. The hours drifted by, she dozed, she read, she paced. The clock ticked loudly on the dresser as she sat down finally to write her sister, her hair pushed back behind her ears, loose and grazing her shoulders. There was no one else. Not even her mother, who barely got by on her widow’s pension. She was facing another failure.
She had been fired several times before and she had quit more times than that. With every setback, Minna would insist that she was fine, she liked her independence, her freedom, her time in the cafe reading and talking. And with every setback, her sister would turn to her in pity and pat her consolingly on the arm,
“Poor Minna. You know you never get a moment’s peace when you work for those people...”
She wanted a bath and a change of clothes, but her bags were still at the Baroness’ house--probably dumped in the alley by now. . As soon as the day porter came on duty, she would send for them. She finished the letter to her sister and sealed it. For years, Martha had indicated that her husband, Sigmund, couldn’t afford another person in the house. Now, according to her sister, things had turned around. His medical practice had improved. He had more patients. There was a sixth child. Matilde, Martin, Oliver, Ernst, Sophie, and now, Anna. Maybe they needed her.
She hoped Sigmund would be in favor of the situation. Their relationship had always been cordial. No, more than cordial. During the past several years, they had shared a lively correspondence concerning subjects of interest to them both: politics, literature and his scientific work.
Minna closed her eyes and imagined Martha opening the letter and sending for her immediately. She held that image in her mind. And she, who had never been dependent on relatives, felt the immense relief of the ignorant.
"[D]elicious ... will enthrall readers." —People, 4 stars
"A titillating tale." —USA Today
"Historical romance fans will speed through the pages and find fodder for book club discussions." —Library Journal, starred review
"A thrilling story of seduction, betrayal, and loss, Freud's Mistress will titillate fans of Memoirs of a Geisha and The Other Boleyn Girl." —Booklist
“If you liked Loving Frank and The Paris Wife, you’ll love Freud's Mistress!” —Katie Couric
"Absorbing and provocative . . . a great read . . . I've been recommending it to friends." —Erica Jong, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“In Freud’s Mistress, Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman succeed where so many historical novels flounder: They weave an unexpected tale of human desire and the bonds of love, based firmly in the rich and relevant source material they’ve scoured for details of the daily lives of fin-de-siècle Viennese, and—fascinatingly—the inner life of Dr. Sigmund Freud.” —Lisa See, New York Times–bestselling author
"It’s a fascinating story told in an utterly compelling fashion. While reading it, I felt as if I were a part of the world of these people—which is at once frightening and exhilarating. Freud's Mistress is a wonderful, engaging, and bittersweet novel. I absolutely loved it.” —Garth Stein, New York Times–bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
“...[A]n intriguing, illuminating, and wholly engrossing account of the affair between Sigmund Freud and his headstrong, intelligent sister-in-law, Minna Bernays. Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman render fin-de-siècle Vienna and the Freud household so vividly one can almost smell the coal fires and cigar smoke.” —Jennifer Chiaverini, author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker
“Book groups looking for a great selection? Look no more! This is Sigmund Freud like we’ve never known him. Insecure, passionate, even sexy. Who knew?” —Esmeralda Santiago, New York Times–bestselling author of Conquistadora
“If you want to understand the obsessive pull of the human heart, you could spend a lifetime on the couch, or you could read this dazzling novel about Minna Bernays’s love affair with her brother-in-law, Sigmund Freud. . . . [T]his is a book to savor.” —Sheri Holman, author of Witches on the Road Tonight and The Dress Lodger
“It is almost impossible to pass up a novel inspired by Sigmund Freud’s rumored affair with his sister-in-law. This is a story that will appeal to the Pleasure Principle of many a reader.” —Whitney Otto, author of Eight Girls Taking Pictures and How to Make an American Quilt
Praise for previous books by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman:
“I almost cried when this book ended…. It is simply fabulous …will make a terrific movie.” —Liz Smith