Re-Covered: Lucy’s Nose by Cecily Mackworth




In the winter of 1892, in his consulting room at his home on Vienna’s Berggasse, Sigmund Freud treated an otherwise healthy but “laconic” English governess suffering from both a loss of her sense of smell and olfactory hallucinations. The most unsettling of these was a pervasive odor of burnt pudding that worsened whenever she was feeling agitated. Miss Lucy R., as Freud refers to her in his and Joseph Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria (1895), was a thirty-year-old woman, originally from Glasgow, living in the home of a managing director of a factory on the outskirts of the city. She was looking after his two children whose mother, a distant relative, had recently died. Freud interpreted Lucy’s symptoms in accordance with his—then, still nascent—theory of hysteria, a condition in which the troubles of the mind manifest themselves in torments of the body. After nine weeks of sessions, Freud came to the conclusion that Lucy was secretly in love with her employer. When this hypothesis was proposed to her, Lucy agreed immediately, her symptoms disappeared, and the analysis was brought to an end.

Unlike some of Freud’s more famous analysands, the case is not especially noteworthy, and Lucy herself remains something of an enigma. Nevertheless, a century later, the Welsh journalist, poet, and writer Cecily Mackworth, who was then in her eighties, went to Vienna to find out what she could about the real woman behind the pseudonym. She encountered a series of dead-ends; few of the city’s official records survived the cataclysmic destruction of World War II. Yet, as the real Lucy—whoever she was—drifted ever further out of Mackworth’s reach, a different Lucy begins to take shape in Mackworth’s imagination instead.

Lucy’s Nose (1992), the book Mackworth published about her quest, is an act of imaginative audacity that mimics Freud’s imposition of narrative onto the fragmented stories his patients told him about their lives. Mackworth employs both her powers of deduction and imagination to piece together an entirely credible but utterly fictional story of Lucy’s encounter with Freud that fills the gaps, silences, and elisions in the original case study. The life that emerges on the page is less a unified, uninterrupted narrative and more a series of novelistic episodes interwoven with Mackworth’s reflections on her own experiences. “At what point does fact drift into fiction, possibilities become translated into probabilities, one kind of reality give place to another?” she asks in the book’s opening line. “What and where is the borderline between biography and a novel?” Part hybrid novel, part memoir, part travelogue, Lucy’s Nose unfolds in these borderlands.


Lucy R.’s story begins back in Calvinist Glasgow, “where thousands of fires stoked with cheap coal spread a veil of smutty fog over the streets,” and even the icy flagstones on the pavement shine “black under the gas-lamps.” This sooty, gray city, Mackworth tells us, contrasts starkly with the “bright colours and exuberant architecture” that await Lucy in Vienna. Mackworth gives Lucy’s employer the name of Meyer. She calls the two children in her charge Mechtilde and Mitzi. Their grandfather—who, in Freud’s account, is mentioned only in passing—becomes “a spritely old gentleman,” technically retired, but still meddling in the running of the factory, “a source of annoyance to his son.” The mistress of the house welcomes Lucy into their family when she first arrives, proudly showing off the city’s sights—the great Ring, the Parliament building—and calls her “little cousin” in tender moments. Shortly thereafter comes the scene of her death, which—in Mackworth’s telling—replays itself in Lucy’s mind after she has described it to Freud. “When I am gone, my children will be motherless,” the dying woman begs. “Promise me you will always be there to take my place and care for them.” Meanwhile, “Herr Meyer stands at the foot of the bed, rigid, his face stiff, because he is Herr Direktor and must remain in control of himself and his subordinates.”

Lucy’s Nose describes this world in sumptuous detail, moving vividly from the Herr Doktor’s flamboyant, cluttered consulting room to the grandeur of Herr Meyer’s house, with its roaring fires and staff of servants, between bustling coffeehouses and the fair at Luna Park. Mackworth writes scene after scene of captivating, highly believable description and dialogue that center on the two-month period during which Lucy’s analysis took place. She recreates these sessions—Lucy “seated nervously on the edge of her chair,” on her first visit; the doctor, meanwhile, with a look of excitement in his “large, dark and extremely shiny” eyes as he questions her—but also spins all manner of additional episodes around them, inspired by tidbits found in Freud’s original text. We see Lucy at home with the Meyer family, and Freud with his own children, or discussing his work with his colleagues. Mackworth peppers this narrative with snatches of authorial commentary: “(This man, who will be important in Lucy’s story, must have a name and ‘Meyer’ seems neutral, suitable for whatever sort of person he will turn out to be. What did he make in his factory, I wonder? Furniture comes first to my mind and seems right, or at least as likely as anything else.)” Rather than serving as distractions, or stumbling blocks in the plot, these asides are integral to Mackworth’s unorthodox narrative form.

Once Lucy leaves the house on the Berggasse, Mackworth’s investigative trail goes cold. The impending wars cast ominous shadows on her possible future. Assuming she lived that long, did she eventually end up in Auschwitz? (Lucy must have been Jewish, Mackworth reasons, because “it would have been difficult, back in the 1890s, for a non-Jewish girl to follow the path from Glasgow to the Berggasse, and because her employer belonged to the middle-class of industrialists who were mostly Jewish at that time.”) Or did she somehow survive? Could she have been living in Vienna still when Mackworth herself first visited, as a journalist, in 1946?

For this book is as much Mackworth’s tale as it is Lucy’s. Mackworth’s research trip is its backbone, providing the chronology along which both Lucy’s story and the author-narrator’s reminiscences are strung. Lucy’s Nose is thus also a story of the changing Vienna of the twentieth century. When Mackworth arrives in search of Lucy, she finds that “extreme orderliness” is the prevalent atmosphere. There’s an easy-to-read underground map, and myriad placards adorning every building deemed “worthy of interest.” All this legibility leaves Mackworth feeling uneasy. Human contact, she argues, “should provide a touch of fantasy.” Although she hopes that her historical research might uncover such traces of fantasy, all her inquiries about the past are met with polite but firm indifference. She understands her interlocutors’ reserve: “they have been involved in history and want no more of it,” she suspects. But her own experience of Vienna is of a deluge of history, both personal and public, real and imaginary. As she traipses around its peaceful, bourgeois streets, she’s bombarded by memories of the same city some forty years earlier. These details—of occupied, postwar Vienna, “bombed and fought over till it was battered practically out of recognition,” its surviving inhabitants “sad and crumpled”—emerge piecemeal, in a handful of monochrome shards; a panorama that, like the city itself, has been shattered, each jagged sliver reflecting awkward angles like a distrustful house of mirrors, seemingly impossible to fit together into a lucid and logical whole. Vienna, she writes, exists “in the geography of my mind like a patch of half-explored, badly-surveyed territory, like those very early maps of Africa where rivers and mountains are in the wrong places.”

Mackworth’s narrator is prepared for the shock of re-encountering this “stranger who had been myself, whom I had almost forgotten.” Yet she’s still dazed by the force with which her recollections of other people resurface, not to mention the strange way in which they then “weave themselves into Lucy’s story, and Freud’s.” She recalls a ghostly brigade of characters, especially the elderly Baron in whose requisitioned Baroque mansion Mackworth was billeted in 1946. He had once been a gentleman-in-waiting to Crown Prince Rudolf, and his stories of “opera and balls and stag-hunts in the Wienerwald” are relics of the bygone world of the Austro-Hungarian empire to which Lucy also belonged. As her time in Vienna draws on, and more and more memories crowd her mind, the author-narrator’s desire to locate the Baron’s mansion overwhelms her initial mission to find traces of Lucy’s life. Now Mackworth is on the trail of her younger self.


Mackworth exists in Lucy’s Nose in many guises. As narrator, she’s the author in her eighties, describing herself writing the book. But the narrative contains two avatars of the author’s younger self: both the real woman, whose experiences are lost in the mists of time, and her fictionalized double, another amalgamation of fact and fantasy. As these women, along with the various incarnations of Lucy whom we also meet, crisscross in and out of each other’s stories, real physical terrain collapses into psychical space. “I am constantly being tugged into byways of memory,” Mackworth writes, “into unlikely channels, long-past moments and incidents that involve me as a stranger I can hardly recognise.” The past is envisaged as a complex network of paths taken and those unexplored. The book’s title thus invokes both Lucy’s symptoms and the theory of history sometimes referred to as Cleopatra’s Nose—that history is merely a series of accidents.

Looking back, the narrator describes herself as a “bewildered girl who had clambered over the ruins of a vanished civilization and longed for love”—but the historical record appears to contradict this. The thirty-five-year-old woman who arrived in Vienna in 1946 was no wide-eyed innocent. She had been widowed seven years previously and left with a two-year-old daughter. She’d been forced to flee her home in Paris when the city fell to the Germans in 1940, making her way by foot across France and Spain to Lisbon and then by sea to England. She was then recruited by MI5 to spy on the Free French (the government in exile that was established under the leadership of de Gaulle), at whose London headquarters she then worked. “I have come to a blank wall in my life and my own springs are sagging and I think I shall never get across it,” Mackworth wrote in her journal on 30 December 1944, mired in an acute depression that lasted until she was able to return to her beloved Paris at the end of 1946. In this light, the material allegory Mackworth’s narrator draws between the “untidy meaninglessness of the landscape” and the bewildering state of her younger self’s confused interior geography has a familiar, Freudian ring to it. As Freud has impressed upon us, amnesia is one of the most common coping mechanisms for dealing with trauma.

Mackworth’s narration departs from a series of questions: Who was Lucy R.? What brought her to Vienna in the first place? Why is nobody else interested in her real identity? Ironically, these questions are echoed in those that Lucy’s Nose implicitly poses regarding its narrator’s motivations. Mackworth never explains quite why she became so “intrigued” by Lucy. Nor does she divulge when or how she first encountered Freud’s case history. But perhaps—the reader imagines—she felt a special kinship with this woman, who inhabited a brighter, bolder version of a city that Mackworth describes as so personally significant. After all, both women were also outsiders, exiles from their home countries, and each adventurers of a sort. In this way, the reader—like Freud in relation to Lucy R.’s hysterical symptoms, and Mackworth in relation to Freud’s text—becomes a kind of psychoanalyst, tyring to uncover the psychological motivations for this textual evidence at their disposal.

Freud famously posited that it was of little consequence whether his patients’ disclosures were real memories or fantasies, since both material and psychical reality have equal power to shape one’s inner life. Similarly, the narrator’s search for the truth about Lucy is revealed to be beside the point: ultimately, the mission to fill in the blanks in Lucy’s story merely affords Mackworth the opportunity to fill in some of her own. Or, as she puts it, “to bring some sort of order out of this bright chaos of memory.”

Towards the end of the book, Mackworth learns that, rather than residing in Leopoldstadt (where she’d been picturing the Meyer household), it’s more likely that the family would have lived in the then new suburb of Floridsdorf. Off Mackworth goes to visit the district, emerging from its “curiously old-fashioned,” curlicue-decorated station to make her usual enquiries at the local town hall. As ever, she finds nothing, but something about her surroundings makes her feel tense. Long-buried memories begins to stir within her: a “jeep-load of journalists … bumping over a mile or so of flat greyness, broken only by high, neatly-stacked pyramids of rubble … the Soviet zone … ‘enemy territory’ … the half-remembered glimpse of a tiny rococo station, incongruously upright. And the special flavour of time remembered.”


Lucy Scholes is senior editor at McNally Editions.