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second, a journal written by Emily herself; third an unpublished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
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withdrawn, lost her job as a teacher and therefore her livelihood.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
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