a seething cauldron of psychosomatic disorders


The Wittgensteins, ensconced in their grand Winter Palace in fin-de-siècle Vienna, were hardly a model family. The father, Karl , was a brutal autocrat as well as a high-class crook. He was an engineer by vocation, and his son Ludwig would later do some original work in aeronautics at Manchester University. A fabulously wealthy steel magnate, Karl rigged prices, bleeding his workers dry and doing much the same to his timorous wife Leopoldine. She once lay awake all night, agonised by an ugly wound in her foot but terrified of moving an inch in case she disturbed her irascible husband. She was an emotionally frigid mother and a neurotically dutiful wife, from whom all traces of individual personality had been violently erased.

The family was a seething cauldron of psychosomatic disorders. Leopoldine was afflicted by terrible leg pains and eventually went blind. Her children had their problems too. Helene was plagued by stomach cramps; Gretl was beset by heart palpitations and sought advice from Sigmund Freud about her sexual frigidity; Hermine and Jerome both had dodgy fingers; Paul suffered from bouts of madness; and little Ludwig was scarcely the most well balanced of souls. Almost all the males of the family were seized from time to time by bouts of uncontrollable fury that bordered on insanity.

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