THE CASE OF EMILY V
BY KEITH OATLEY

Review by Diana Bane


The Case of Emily V is a novel woven together of three separate but closely related narratives, all taking place in the years 1904-05, each told in a style and voice perfectly matched to the subject matter. First, a case study by Dr. Sigmund Freud, from which the book’s title is derived; second, a journal written by Emily herself; third an unpublished novella by Dr. John Watson featuring his usual subject, Sherlock Holmes. At the conclusion there is a commentary of a few pages by the fictional Dr. Ellen Berger, a present-day psychoanalyst.
It is difficult to believe that Emily V is fiction -- that is how closely the author, Keith Oatley, has followed the styles of writing of Dr. Freud himself, and of the journals of women writing in the early 20th Century, and the style of Arthur Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes stories. They ring absolutely true, all three. The result is that this novel is not an easy read -- it does read like the nonfiction that it imitates. Nevertheless this is a rewarding change of pace, particularly for anyone who has any familiarity with this sort of subject matter and who enjoys fiction of historical accuracy.

Emily V is a young British expatriate living in Vienna. She consults Dr. Freud, who is at an early stage in developing his psychoanalytic technique, at the urging of her friend Sara Rosenthal. Something has happened to Emily that she is keeping secret from everyone, something that has so upset her that she has had a nervous collapse and then completely withdrawn, lost her job as a teacher and therefore her livelihood. Emily is highly educated, with a degree from Bryn Mawr, she speaks four modern languages plus Latin and Greek, and has published literary translations to some acclaim. She is the daughter of a diplomat, was orphaned in her teens and then brought up by another diplomat and his wife; but wanting to be on her own for reasons that eventually unfold for Dr. Freud -- and thus for the reader -- Emily left England to go to college in America, and now continues to allow her guardians in England to believe she is in America after she has taken a position in Vienna. The diplomat-guardian is discovered dead, having fallen off a cliff in the mountains half a day’s train ride from Vienna, at the same time as Emily had her nervous collapse. Sherlock Holmes is hired by the Home Office -- in the person of his brother Mycroft -- to investigate the diplomat’s death, which may be considered suspicious due to his assignment to Vienna on secret government business. These were the days before the First World War in which the "art of espionage" was born, and MI 6 was formed.

That is the core of the mystery: What did Emily V have to do with the death of the diplomat who was also her guardian? Is she herself involved in espionage? What will happen to her, whether she is guilty or not?

It is worth noting that both Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes have well deserved reputations as misogynists, based on Dr. Freud’s own words in his writings and on Conan Doyle’s words in his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Keith Oatley does not shrink from similar characterizations. Whether the agonized portrait he draws of Emily V is true to the life of women at the time, or somewhat exaggerated for the effect of his narrative, is difficult (even for one who has read extensively in other works of this period) to say. It will be hard for most readers not to become impatient with Emily even as she tells her own story, because she is as much a victim of her own mind as she is of her life circumstances. One thing is certain: Although her story is not easy to read, it is haunting, and will be hard to forget.


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