Book review: The little Welshman who made Sigmund Freud a giant

freuds wizard“Freud’s Wizard” by Brenda Maddox is a biography tracing the life of one Ernest Jones, a Welsh doctor and psychologist who almost single-handedly promoting Sigmund Freud’s ideas of psychoanalysis to Britain and the world.

He also orchestrated the rescuing of Freud, his family and many other prominent Jewish Viennese psychoanalysts when Hitler invaded Austria in 1938. Jones secured the difficult-to-get visas and flew into Nazi-occupied Austria to bring Freud to London.

Maddox’s book could easily have been subtitled: “The man who made Sigmund Freud”.

And given the Jones was a short Welshman and Freud a behemoth of modern psychology, it might have been more elaborately sub-titled: “The little Welshman who made Sigmund Freud a giant”.

Ernest Jones was Freud’s champion and close confidant for 30 years and wrote what is considered the definitive (three-volume) biography of the father of psychoanalysis – ‘The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud’ – considered to be among the greatest biographies ever written.

Maddox, an anglophile American resident in the UK, who has written a number of noted biographies (including those about DH Lawrence, WB Yeats and Rosalind Franklin) has certainly picked an interesting and influential figure to write about in Ernest Jones, one of those figures in history who stand in the shadows of greatness, but were great in their own right.

The book begins with Jones’s birth in a small town a few miles from Swansea in Wales and follows his progress through school, medical school and the start of a very chequered medical career in London and then Toronto, before meeting Freud in 1906 and beginning his life’s work.

I have read some of the reviews of “Freud’s Wizard” which remark that Jones comes across as not a very likeable man – he was controlling, manipulative and devious, someone who tells his own son that he has a “hell of a superego”.

However, these character flaws pale into insignificance compared with disturbing accusations made against Jones alleging indecent behaviour against children while he was a young doctor in London (similar accusations were made later in his career).

Jones was found not guilty, but his innocence – as explained by Maddox – may have more to do with the epoch in which the incident allegedly occurred – that children were considered “mentally unreliable” while there also did not yet exist the technology to test DNA, which may have been conclusive in proving Jones’s guilt or innocence.

Maddox does not overlook this behaviour – she finds it perplexing and disturbing – nor does she overlook Jones’s infidelities or his womanising, but she clearly admires Jones too much to let them get in the way of portraying him as a hero of Freud and of psychoanalysis, which undoubtedly he was.


Taken in 1909: Sigmund Freud front left next to Carl Jung (on his right) with Ernest Jones in the middle of the back row.

The axis of the book is Ernest Jones’s relationship with Freud and his efforts to establish psychoanalysis as a recognised medical treatment rather than a quack, devious treatment with its emphasis on unconscious sexual motives (the Oedipus Complex) and other controversial theories such as penis envy.

The book catalogues the different psychoanalytic societies and journals that Jones founded, his insatiable appetite for writing essays on different psychoanalytic themes (he even wrote a book on figure-skating) and his tireless devotion to the cause of psychoanalysis.

While he fails as a doctor – no London hospital will take him on after his record is blackened – but he ultimately thrives as a psychoanalyst, liasing with all the great psychoanalytic minds (apart from Freud) as well as the famous Bloomsbury Group, a collection of English writers, some of whom helped translate Freud’s ideas into English.

The book also chronicles Jones very important role in keeping the American psychoanalytic movement onside when it threatened to split from the Freudians – Americans believed only medical doctors should be allowed to practice psychoanalysis while British and European psychoanalytic societies believed non-medically trained people could become practitioners provided they were properly trained and underwent psychoanalysis themselves.

The passion of Ernest Jones in this endeavour and others is probably one of the key reasons why so many Americans (especially in places like New York ) undergo psychoanalysis today.

And consider this, without Ernst Jones there might never have been neurotic, anxiety-written comics like Woody Allen and his many jokes and references to psychoanalysis.

As Allen’s character Alvy Singer remarks in “Annie Hall”:

“I was depressed…I would have killed myself but I was in analysis with a strict Freudian and if you kill yourself … they make you pay for the sessions you miss.”

Ernest Jones, who considered himself something of an honorary jew given his close friendship with Freud and other Jewish pyschoanalysts (cemented by his marriage to Kitty Jokl, a jewess) and fond of using yiddish words, would no doubt have found this joke amusing.

Ironically, it was Ernest Jones’s non-Jewishness which helped give Freud’s theories legitimacy in an age when anti-semitism was rife.

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