A dark tale of a singular time and an empowering friendship

THE DOCTOR'S DAUGHTER - Vanessa Matthews

I am a psychiatrist, and when I read the plot of this book I could not resist. A book set in Vienna about the early times of psychiatry, and a woman, the daughter of a psychiatrist, trying to develop her own ideas and become independent from her father’s overbearing influence. I had to read it.

The book is fascinating and very well-written. I suspect that somebody without my background might enjoy the story more for what it is, and not try and overanalyse it or overdiagnose it. Arnold Rosenblit’s theories are suspiciously reminiscent of Sigmund Freud’s. And of course, he also had a daughter, Anna, who dedicated her life to study and develop child-psychology. I’ve read some of Freud’s works, but I haven’t read that much about his life, although from what I’ve seen, his relationship with his daughter was much more congenial than the one Arnold (a man difficult to like, although the description of his relationship with his wife is quite touching) had with Marta, the daughter of the title.

The book is written in the third person and mostly narrated through Marta’s point of view, although there are chapters from her friend Elise’s perspective, her father, and Leopold, a physician and long-time friend of the family.

Marta is a very complex character, and one I found difficult to simply empathise with and not to try and diagnose. Her mother was locked up in a psychiatric asylum when she was very young and she became the subject of her father’s observation. The father tried to keep her as isolated as possible from his other daughters, but the oldest daughter looked after her, even if minimally, and they were all in the same house. (It made me think of the scenario of the film Peeping Tom, although Arnold does not seem to have been openly and intentionally cruel.) She appears naïve and inexperienced, at least in how to behave socially and in her role and feelings as a woman, but she is a doctor, a psychiatrist, attends and organises her father’s talks and lectures, and teaches outside, therefore she’s exposed to society and has always been. This is not somebody who has truly grown up in isolation, although she has missed a guiding female figure in her life and the close emotional attachment.

She has her own psychological theories and ideas, but finds it difficult to make her father listen to her. She has very low self-esteem, self-harms and has been doing so for a long time, and when she enters a relationship with a man, she’s completely clueless as to standards of behaviour or how to interpret this man’s attentions (a much older man than her, but somebody with influence and who promises to help her). Although she was not brought up by her mother, I wondered how realistic some of her behaviours would be for a woman of her social class at that period. However, the novel does paint the fine society of the time as a close set-up with a very dark undercurrent, with drugs and alcohol being consumed abundantly, and adventurous sexual behaviours being fairly common, and perhaps Marta is reflexion of such contradictions. On the surface, very controlled (the ego), but with strong and dark passions underneath (the unconscious).

Eloise, the friend she casually meets (or so it seems at the time), is a formidable character, determined, strong-willed, and resourceful, prepared to fight the good fight for women in a society of men. It’s very easy to root for her.

There is a classical villain, that you might suspect or not from early on, but who eventually is exposed as being a psychopathic criminal. The difficulty I had with this character was that I never found him attractive enough or clever enough to justify the amount of power he had over everybody. He is narcissistic and manipulative but even he at some point acknowledges that he uses people but has no great contributions or ideas of his own. It is perhaps because we’re privy to Marta’s thoughts and we see behaviours most people wouldn’t see that we don’t fall for him, but later on he’s revealed to have behaved similarly with quite a few people, especially women, and for me, it was difficult to understand why they would all fall for him. Marta is a damaged individual and he takes advantage of it, but what about the other women? And the rest of society? Leaving that aside (it might be a personal thing with me), he’s definitely somebody you’ll love to hate. (I’m trying not to spoil the plot for readers, although the description of the books gives quite a few clues).

The ending, despite terrible things happening and much heartache, is a joy. Considering what has gone on before, everything turns very quickly, and it’s difficult to imagine that in real life psychological healing would be quite so complete and perhaps so smooth. But it is a fairy tale ending, and although a dark tale, one of sisterhood triumphant.

A word of warning, the book can prove a tough read, as some pretty dark things take place, and there are some cringe-inducing moments. It is not an easy read, but it will challenge you and make you think. And that’s not a bad thing.

I was offered a copy by the author in exchange for an honest review.