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Martha Bernays

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Martha Bernays

Martha Bernays (1882)

Martha Bernays (; German: ; 26 July 1861, in Hamburg – 2 November 1951, in London) was the wife of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

Bernays was the second daughter of Emmeline and Berman Bernays. Her paternal grandfather Isaac Bernays was a Chief Rabbi of Hamburg.


Martha Bernays was raised in an observant Orthodox Jewish family.[1] Although the Bernays and Freud families were well acquainted - her brother marrying Freud's sister, for example[2] - the latter were more liberal Jews, and Freud in particular had no time for ritual observances: Martha told a cousin that "not being allowed to light the Sabbath lights on the first Friday night after her marriage was one of the more upsetting experiences of her life".[3]

Courtship and marriage

Sigmund and Martha met in April 1882 and after a four year engagement (1882–1886) they got married on 14 September 1886 in Hamburg.[4]

Freud and Bernays’s love letters sent during the engagement years, according to Freud's official biographer Ernest Jones, who read all the letters, "would be a not unworthy contribution to the great love literature of the world." Freud sent over 900 (lengthy)letters to his fiancée, which chart the ups and downs of a tempestuous relationship, marred by outbreaks of jealousy on his part as well as affirmations that "I love you with a kind of passionate enchantment".[5]

Their eventual marriage was a much more harmonious affair - Martha consoling herself after his death with the thought that "in the 53 years of our marriage there was not a single angry word between us".[6] The couple had six children: Mathilde (b. 1887), Jean-Martin (b. 1889), Oliver (b. 1891), Ernst (b. 1892), Sophie (b. 1893), and Anna (b. 1895).


The young Martha Bernays was a slim and attractive charmer, intelligent, well-educated and fond of reading (as she remained throughout her life).[7] As a married woman, she ran her household efficiently, and was indeed almost obsessive about punctuality and dirt.[8] Firm but loving with her children, she spread an atmosphere of peaceful [9]

Ménage à trois?

Bernays’s younger sister, Minna Bernays, was very close to the young couple, and moved in with them in the 1890s, to set up what has (jokingly) been called a ménage à trois.[10] Sigmund and Minna would sometimes holiday together;[11] and the suggestion has periodically been made that she in fact became Freud's mistress. Jung for example reported (late in life) that from Minna he "learned that Freud was in love with her and that their relationship was indeed very intimate".[12]

This claim was (and is) controversial. The publication of a hotel log from 1898 registering the pair as "Dr Sigm Freud u frau" in a double room has prompted some Freud scholars, including his defender Peter Gay, to regard the conjecture of Freud and Minna having an affair as possibly accurate;[13][14] other proponents of the affair however - relying on their analysis of Freud's own autobiographical writings - believe that it was only consummated in 1900.[15]

Opponents point to the unlikelihood of such a betrayal taking place between sisters as close as Minna and Martha, especially given the mores of the time;[16] and to the less sensational possibility of the hotel simply being full at the time.[17] Pending publication of the Freud/Minna correspondence for the period 1893-1910, the truth behind such speculations may not be known for sure.[18]

What does seem certain is that Martha herself in no way knew of, or colluded in, any such affair. Freud himself described her as thoroughly good, where he and Minna were more self-willed and wild;[19] and for better or worse her commitment to conventional morality, domestic duty and family values is clear.[20] (Her husband too had shocked André Breton by his lack of any Bohemianism,[21] and considered a sexually promiscuous woman as "simply a Haderlump [a ragamuffin]".[22]) Martha's attitude to infidelity is perhaps best iilustrated by her reaction to their friend Stefan Zweig leaving his wife Frederica for a younger woman: six years after Zweig's death in 1942, Martha wrote to his widow that she still resented "our friend's infidelity to you!"[23]

See also


  1. ^ Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 38
  2. ^ Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1964)p. 111-2
  3. ^ Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 54
  4. ^ Letters of Sigmund Freud; selected and edited by Ernst L. Freud, Basic Books, 1960; p. 7 ISBN 0-486-27105-6
  5. ^ Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1964) p. 109. 116-9, and p. 133
  6. ^ Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 60
  7. ^ Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1964) p. 110-1 and p. 165-6
  8. ^ Peter Gay, Reading Freud (1990) p. 172
  9. ^ Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 59-61
  10. ^ Peter Gay, Reading Freud (1990) p. 161
  11. ^ Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1964) p. 150
  12. ^ Quoted in Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 752
  13. ^ "Hotel log hints at desire that Freud didn't repress - Europe - International Herald Tribune".  
  14. ^ Eysenck, Hans. Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire. Transaction Publishers, 2004
  15. ^ R. L. Rudnytsky, Rescuing Psychoanalysis from Freud (2011) p. 17
  16. ^ L. H. Lefkovitz, In Scripture (2010) p. 76-8
  17. ^ L. Davidoff, Thicker than Water (2012) p. 17
  18. ^ Peter Gay, Reading Freud (1990) p. 179
  19. ^ Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1964) p. 159
  20. ^ Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 59-60
  21. ^ Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (1997) p. 276
  22. ^ E. Timms ed., Freud and the Child Woman (1995) p. 169
  23. ^ Quoted in Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 60n

Further reading

  • Esti D. Freud, "Mrs Sigmund Freud", Jewish Spectator, XLV (1980) 29-31

External links

  • The Freud Museum, London
  • Freud's love letters....
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