Friday, 8 March 2013

Guises of Desire by Hilda Reilly

In spite of its title and rather intriguing cover, GUISES OF DESIRE is neither a romance nor a work of erotica.  It is a simply and beautifully written novel of historical fiction, which is in fact based on a true story. It's the fictionalized account of the ordeal of Bertha Pappenheim, who may very well be described as the founding patient of psychoanalysis.  Psychoanalysis is a method of dealing with mental problems pioneered by the famous  19th century peronality, Dr. Sigmund Freud.  One of the cases on which much of Freud's theories were based was the case of  'Anna O', a patient of Dr. Josef Breuer, an associate of Freud's.

'Anna O' was a clinical pseudonym for Bertha Pappenheim.  In order to bring Bertha's story before us, author Hilda Reilly did extensive research which guarantees the reader a trip to 19th century Vienna, to the Jewish middle class milieu where Bertha belonged.  Bertha suffered from an early age. A sensitive child who was educated enough to speak and read in several languages, German, Italian, French and English, she was deeply disturbed by the gender discrimination she saw in her corner of society.  Orthodox Jewish culture at the time didn't seem to recognize the spiritual needs of women.  Bertha looked on aghast as the males took the best seats in the synagogue while the women were shut away from the prayer hall in a sort of women's gallery, discussing recipes and social functions.  She sees her parents make much of their spoilt son, Wilhelm, while she is constantly reprimanded by her mother for her high spirits. She is punished harshly in her Roman Catholic school for 'ridiculing the religious beliefs of others' when she simply asked some searching questions.  At the same time, she develops a crush on her English teacher, who is everything she wants to be herself.

The author describes how Bertha breaks down while nursing her father through the night when he suffers from tuberculosis.  Her breakdown, consisting of , among other things, loss of muscle control, hallucinations and complete absent mindedness on occasions, seems, through today's eyes, to have been due to neurological causes, together with a dependence on sleep medication. Dr. Josef Breuer through his regular visits to her  home, tries to use novel methods like hypnotism and 'talking cure' (counselling) to get to the root of the psychological problems which he feels are responsible with Bertha's plight.  The result of this treatment, however, appears to have been  a childish fascination on Bertha' part, with  the good doctor, which seems to result in some self indulgent erotic fantasies.

The author leads us along the way, but she doesn't do our thinking for us.  Bertha's actual path to healing and wholeness comes in a way no one could have anticipated and it is as if the answer had been staring Bertha and her carers in the face the whole time.  It is the discovery of what the solution was that kept me glued to this wonderful book until the very end.

The subject matter may at times seem a little grim, but like all good novels, the redemption is coming and the end result is well worth the read.  As historical fiction goes, this is excellent.and needless to say, I will be looking out for Hilda Reilly's novels in the future.