[12 March 2007]
The previous subjects of Brenda Maddox’s award-winning biographies have mostly been well-known and well-loved; they include Elizabeth Taylor, D. H. Lawrence, Nora Joyce, and W. B. Yeats. In the case of Ernest Jones, however, Maddox faces a greater challenge. Not only is Jones little known in the world outside psychoanalysis (which itself fell from grace long ago), but also, the man himself turns out to have been something of a tricky figure, as Maddox carefully reveals.
Who was Ernest Jones? Though his name is probably unfamiliar even to those who work in the field of mental health, if it weren’t for Ernest Jones, we wouldn’t have Dr. Phil, Dr. Ruth, and all the other pop therapists encouraging us to come clean and get real—although if he could have predicted the rise of such dubious gurus, Jones might have had second thoughts about bringing Freud’s ideas to the attention of the hoi polloi.
The ambitious, diminutive son of a South Wales colliery accountant, Jones attended medical school in London, and became fascinated by the ideas of Freud in the early 1900s, when psychoanalysis was too little-known even to be controversial. Convinced of Freud’s genius, Jones rose to become the only British member of the Viennese master’s original inner circle, whose other members were Austro-Hungarian Jews. Jones was one of the first to practice psychoanalysis in Britain, and presided over the translation of Freud’s work into English. He also wrote some highly influential works of his own, which helped popularize the psychoanalytic way of thinking not only in medicine, but also in the arts; his best-known books are On the Nightmare (1931), and Hamlet and Oedipus (1949)—which apparently was responsible for Lawrence Olivier’s interpretation of the role in the 1948 movie. Most dramatically, in 1938, he flew to war-torn Vienna to rescue Freud (and his entourage of 17, not including his dog) from the Nazi threat. In the 1950s he capped his life’s achievement by writing a three-volume biography of Freud that became an international bestseller.
Brenda Maddox, who herself has a home in Wales, combines careful, meticulous research with an even, understated style to make this biography consistently interesting and informative. Wisely, she avoids judging the scientific merit of Freud’s theories, and focuses instead on their social influence and cultural importance. She writes gracefully, and with an infectious sympathy for her subject, though not so much that she turns a blind eye to his flaws. This is important, because, while she makes it clear than Jones was intelligent, charismatic, and energetic, she also makes it known that he could be determined, insinuating, and even pushy at times.
He could also be two-faced, though he always fawned on Freud, who, although suspicious of Jones’s “racial strangeness,” realized it was important that psychoanalysis should not be seen as a “Jewish science,” especially as the Nazis gained power. Jones remained unaware, however, that in letters to others, Freud displayed his own capacity for hypocrisy, disparaging his acolyte as “the Liar from Wales,” and observing that, intellectually, he remained “on a schoolboy level.” He also warned his daughter Anna not to get involved with him.
Jones, who exhibited enormous influence over the reception of psychoanalysis in Britain, would not have been so successful if were practicing today. In fact, he’d probably have lost his license at age 27, and perhaps have served time in jail. In March 1906, he was accused of indecently exposing himself during a speech test at a school for retarded children—complaints were made by at least two children, separately. The charges were dismissed in court as fantasy, but even Maddox, sympathetic though she is, seems to feel the children got a raw deal. It may have been true that the charges ended any prospect for Jones of an orthodox medical career in London, but they never hampered his success. Moreover, his subsequent behavior surely confirms his guilt—he was sexually involved with a number of his patients, including a woman in Toronto who filed charges against him and whom he seems to have tried to pay off. He also dumped his long time fiancé after getting involved with an heiress and, when she turned out to be a “sexual anaesthetic,” had an affair with her maid.
Da Capo’s press campaign for the US edition of Maddox’s book makes Dr. Jones’s colorful sex life into a selling point, boasting that he “managed an impressive series of liaisons that included an heiress and her maid, analysands, and a Druid Bride. Jones, unlike Freud, never had to ask ‘what do women want?’” Look at it another way, and this kind of behavior, rather than something to brag about, seems distinctly unethical, even criminal. It’s to Maddox’s credit that, without glossing over Jones’s flaws, she makes it clear that things are never as black and white as we’d like them to be, especially when psychoanalysis is involved. The biography left me wondering how many pioneering intellectuals have been dismissed for exhibiting behavior we now consider inappropriate, and how many childrens’ lives were damaged by doctors like Ernest Jones.